Good bad programmer

Published on 22 July 2012.

Sometimes when @kajgo and I meet at a café to hack on Photobox, we end up talking about various other interesting subjects. A few days ago was one of those days. I want to share what we talked about and also take a moment to reflect on it once more in this post.

We have both felt frustrated over bad code and bad programmers, so we started discussing what the difference is between good programmers and bad programmers. But in order to compare programmers you need to know what programmers do.

You might think of a programmer as someone who has great knowledge about the domain in which he solves problems. Someone that tries to understand customer needs so that he can build the right thing. And then uses this knowledge to write a program.

I think the above description is not accurate. Not for a programmer. Perhaps it is better suited for a software developer. A programmer does something much more specific I think. Maybe a software developer must be able to work with customers and understand their needs, but a programmer is someone that can take an idea and implement it so that it can be executed on a computer. That’s it.

The difference between a good programmer and a bad programmer lies in how he implements an idea. Is it done in a way that others can understand? Is it done in a way that it can easily be adapted to new requirements? Is it done fast? Is it done so that execution performance is good? Can he only do it in a specific language or environment?

So do we encounter bad software in the wild because programmers have done a poor job, or are there other parts in the software development process that can be held responsible? If programming is not the bottleneck, is it even worth it to try and become a better programmer?

It is quite easy today to become a bad to average programmer. Anyone can figure out how to make an idea executable. But I think we can all agree that there is a big difference between a good programmer and a bad programmer. So probably they way in which a programmer implements an idea is important.

It might be that if you want to become a really good programmer, you can not spend as much time on getting better at understanding customer needs and such. The question is if that matters? What if you compose a team of expert programmers and people that are good at other aspects of the software development process? When they collaborate, the programmers learn about the domain and what is important to the customer, but the programmers do not need to be experts on that aspect. If the programmers can focus on being good at making ideas execute on the computer, wouldn’t we end up with better code?

But perhaps you are not that attractive if you are only good at programming. Maybe getting a job with programming as only skill is hard. But maybe expert programmers are needed, even though people don’t realize it?

One thing that has been talked about in software craftsmanship circles is the idea of apprenticeships for making better programmers. With the definition that programmers make ideas execute on machines, programming is quite a specific activity. So you might be able to create an apprenticeship program that produces expert programmers. Programmers that can implement ideas in a variety of languages and paradigms. Programmers that can write code that is easily adaptable to requirement changes and so on. But what if they focus more on other aspects of software development. Then they would probably just yield slightly better than average programmers, but perhaps better software developers. Is it better to have a single person be a good software developer or have an expert programmer with supporting people in a team?

I don’t know the answer to any of this, but it felt like a useful discussion. Please join the discussion in the comments if you like.

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