The Enjoyable Profession of Software DevelopmentSoftware development can be a tremendously rewarding, enjoyable career.
Few careers offer comparable opportunities to weave intricate, complex structures that, while virtual, have such a positive impact on the world around them. Few offer the freedom and creativity that software development does, or the very real potential for entrepreneurial riches.
Whether it's building a new peer-to-peer application, control software for a massive power generator, or improving the workflow of the corporate scorecard system, done right this can be a very fulfilling, enjoyable, challenging pursuit.
A Passion for Software Development?Are you really passionate about software development? Be honest with yourself.
A desire to outshine a teammate isn't passion. Nor is a motivation to impress the boss. Neither is a combination of the two worn as a magic defensive cloak against downsizing spells. These are second-rate, artificial passion substitutes: Mixed into the recipe, they yield sub par results, often leaving a nasty aftertaste of burnout and dissatisfaction.
Instead I'm talking about a bona fide interest and enjoyment of the craft and challenge of software development, even outside of career or job security issues (though it benefits the same). This isn't a job ad demanding that you're "passionate about business reports!", but rather is just a moment for sober reflection on whether you're over-clocking life, or running idle instructions in a tight loop.
If you're like many software developers in the industry today, a feeling of enthusiasm and enjoyment for the pursuit is just a distant memory (often during the happy days of university and your first job). Instead it has become a career, and is just something you do from 9-5 (or more when passion is replaced by sacrifice). Skills have likely stagnated, moving just enough to compete with coworkers, or to avoid obsolescence.
Of course there are those who've never enjoyed this career, and they probably will never enjoy it -- it just isn't their thing. The only advice I can offer to those people is a suggestion that life is too fleeting to spend so much time doing something you don't enjoy.
Software developers who truly love what they are doing are the ones creating the most innovative code. They're the ones with productivity rates multiples of their peers. They're the ones that feel a little guilty getting paid to do something they enjoy so much
The Tips to be a Productive, Happy Software Developers
1. Be Marketable - Keep Up To Date Skills and Network ContactsMost of us will work for over a dozen different firms over our careers.
We'll leave for better salaries and working conditions. We'll relocate to accommodate a spouse's career. We'll be laid off during corporate mergers and spin-offs, or even when the company goes bankrupt. We'll get turfed out because we're over-skilled, and thus overpaid, relative to the needs of the position. We'll be downsized because we aren't compatible with the new boss' empire building schemes. Maybe we'll get bored of a position and seek out something new.
This is the employment reality of most careers in the 21st century.
To some professionals this represents an exciting journey, and each transition is met with anticipation and enthusiasm. These people feel confident in their abilities, have a network of peers in the industry communicating interesting opportunities, and their skillset is up-to-date and marketable (they have the appropriate laundry list of abilities, credentials and certifications, and upgrade as needed), and while the possibility of their current employer closing shop tomorrow is something they'd prefer not happen, and they probably love the great group of people that they work with, it isn't something that they fear.
To less prepared professionals, however, the idea of losing their cushy job hangs over them like a black cloud. Their lack of apparent opportunities, and the feeling that they couldn't find an equivalent job, is enormously destructive of both motivation and job satisfaction. Paradoxically, job protectionism (such as making one "indispensable" through obscurity, by denigrating coworkers, and so on) often becomes a more likely activity of people in such positions than legitimate contributions.
This is incredibly destructive to morale, not just for the individual in question, but for everyone on their team: Often the malcontent, contagiously demotivated member of the team is the least employable, and it can be debated which condition led to the other.
SUMMARY: No matter how much you love your current job, you should keep your CV current, and you should always keep up-to-date on industry opportunities. Know what skills are in demand, and try to gain experience in them (even if it means pursuing formal or self-training during your own time), and attain a level of comfort that you could transition to a different opportunity with minimal discomfort.
MANAGER SUMMARY: You should do everything in your power to make your group feel confident in their abilities -- ensure that everyone gets a chance with marketable technologies; encourage the pursuit of desirable certifications; and build skills through internal resources, workshops, and seminars. Unless you're running a sweatshop, this is unlikely to lead to a feared exodus of employees, but instead will empower and motivate your group to more openly contribute, and to demand more of each other.
2. Be The Master of Your DomainThe control we have over our environment can have a tremendous impact on our happiness.
Something as simple as a sporadically malfunctioning key on our keyboard can ruin an entire day, for instance. Similarly, when you're nearing a deadline and your network connection starts flaking out, it can make an enjoyable jog to the finish line a frustrating exercise of physical restraint (in this case restraining yourself from tearing the wiring out of the wall). At least we have optical mice now, eliminating one of the primary causes of environmental control frustration.
Many times our work habits inevitably bring a feeling of "lack of control" into our work lives: By failing to fully read the documentation for our tools, investigating their behaviour, APIs, and nuances, we often create a situation where much of our development is basically crap-shoot trial and error, reacting as things don't work as planned.
I've witnessed development groups, not to mention that I've demonstrated this unsavoury trait myself, unhappily fighting with perceived technology deficiencies (usually as a deadline rapidly approaches), moaning and complaining about what seems to be faults in the language, technology, or platform, forever building workarounds under a fog of uncertainty, when in reality it was actually a fault in the understanding of the same.
More often than not it's simply that they haven't spent the upfront time to understand the language (I remain amazed at the number of C# developers who have no idea what the using keyword is for, or why seemingly out-of-scope file objects are still locking files until some magical, indeterminate time in the future. Or the Delphi developers who needlessly nulled variables at the end of scope in a futile misguided attempt to fight mystery bugs), the technology, or the platform. Their frustration is created out of ignorance, and a small up-front investment would have sped up development, increasing the sense of control that the developers have over their domain.
SUMMARY: The next time something seems mysterious or unknown, take the time to properly investigate it. Classic lack-of-control approaches such as hacked workarounds or "reset the server daily" lead to a feeling of losing control, reducing job satisfaction and adding to the natural daily frustrations. And get your keyboard replaced if it starts malfunctioning.
MANAGER SUMMARY: Identify and investigate "easy-outs" proposed by your development team. While most software has faults, and products and technologies often work differently than we might imagine, many times such excuses are due to a lack of investigation and analysis. Even when things don't work as advertised, which is frequently the case, formally investigating and empirically determining behaviours is vastly superior to each developer endlessly fighting with and then hashing out strategies on a need basis. And make sure your developers have functioning keyboards.
3. Accommodate Your Financial NeedsI've worked in some great positions at the wrong times in my life, sapping my motivation until eventually I moved on. These positions were for great firms, with great working conditions and great coworkers and management, but it couldn't realistically adapt to accommodate my evolving financial needs. I invented dissatisfactions with the situation, turning an ideal situation into a daily torture.
After getting married and planning for our first child, for instance, the financial risk/reward that worked when I was living alone in a $600 apartment eating Ramen noodles was no longer satisfactory. Demands of owning a home, a car with infant carseats, education funds, daycare (for two children costing more than it would cost to lease two (2) BMW 750i's), and boxes and boxes of diapers, required more financial returns than I needed years before.
I moved on.
While the resulting role superficially wasn't as satisfactory, from a life perspective my mood brightened dramatically, and my day was much more enjoyable.
Of course this seems like cheap advice: Make more money! And Fast! Yet the reality is that developers often do make choices to the detriment of their financial condition, and if they go too far they will hate their job no matter how perfect it otherwise is. Working for equity of a start-up is great when you're just out of university, but it is destined for failure when you're more established.
SUMMARY: If your financials are out of balance, it will unavoidably sour your mood during the workday, making you resent your employer and your workplace. When life goals exceed the income of your position, immediately begin investigating alternatives (be it asking for a raise, looking for a more senior role in your organization, or seeking employment elsewhere). No motivational boost or cool company games room will overcome this basic life need.
MANAGEMENT SUMMARY: Be aware of the goals and needs of your group. Sometimes someone's needs grow beyond the possible return of a position, and it is important to appropriately communicate this (rather than giving vague hints of unseen raises and super-bonuses at some future point).
4. Have A Life Outside of WorkThis is a rule that works for all professions -- having accomplishments providing satisfaction outside of work will smooth the inevitable downs of our professional lives, often providing one with a much better perspective. Without this, often minor workplace failures can explode into seemingly momentous events.
These accomplishments can even be in the same domain: A professional coder by day, and an open-source coder by night, for instance.
SUMMARY: There will be periods when everything seems to go wrong in the workplace. Having the cushion of achievements outside of work can avoid it spiraling into a workplace disaster, keeping spirits up through the tough times. Often non-work experiences benefit the workplace as well, whether it's techniques learned from nighttime projects, or delicious coffee courtesy of the nighttime barista classes.
MANAGER SUMMARY: There is a world outside of work.
5. Properly Manage ExpectationsDevelopers, as a general rule, are terrible at managing expectations: Many of us are prone to overpromising deliverables, assuring stakeholders that we'll deliver these amazing results sooner than is reasonable. I've fallen victim to this syndrome myself, and I've seen it occur rampantly across the industry.
When D-day comes we convince ourselves into believing that the users built their own unrealistic expectations, and managers forced us into untenable timelines. While often that is the case, just as frequently the developers were the origin of misinformation.
While there is a temporary sense of satisfaction wowing users and management with an exaggerated declaration of our abilities (we've likely even convinced ourselves), as time wears on this misinformation can be enormously destructive and debilitating. With every day closer to the deadline we get a little more desperate for a silver bullet, hoping that some magic technology or component will deliver us from damnation.
It seldom works out that way.
Users are unhappy. Management is dissatisfied. Employees are demoralized and devastated.
The best option is always to manage expectations, to ensure that we can reasonably deliver promised results without heroic effort.
SUMMARY: Plan for the long term, realizing that promises that aren't delivered on will cause you great workplace unhappiness later. Manage expectations to ensure that you can satisfy your "customers" with reasonable effort, and with a reasonably high probability of success.
MANAGER SUMMARY: Never demand unrealistic deadlines, and question employees when provided with the same. Encourage your troops to be more reasonable with their promises, especially to stakeholders outside of the group, and they'll have a much greater probability of meeting external expectations, leading to increased motivation for everyone.