5 More Attributes of Highly Effective Programmers

Nearly 7 years ago, I wrote a little article called The Top 5 Attributes of Highly Effective Programmers that got some good feedback and has proven popular over time.

One matures as a developer, of course. I wrote that last article quite closer to the beginning of my career. Over the last few years, especially at Microsoft, I’ve had the opportunity to witness a much wider range of behaviors. I’ve been able to develop a much better sense of what differentiates the novice from the truly effective developer.

The difference in skills can be truly staggering if you’re not used to seeing it. A new programmer, or one who has not learned much from experience, can often be an order of magnitude or more less productive than a good, experienced developer. You don’t want to spend very long at the bottom of this kind of ranking. Some of this is just experience, but in many cases it’s just a mindset–there are plenty of “experienced” developers who haven’t actually learned to improve. It’s true in many professions, but especially so in programming–you can’t plateau. You have to keep learning. The world changes, programming changes, and what was true 10 years ago is laughably outdated.

The attributes I listed in the previous article are still applicable. They are still valuable, but there is more. Note that I am not claiming in this article that I’ve mastered these. I still aspire to meet higher standards in each of these areas. Remember that it is not hypocrisy to espouse good ideas, even while struggling to live up to them. These are standards to live up to, not descriptions of any one person I know (though I do know plenty of people who are solid in at least one of these areas).

Sense of Ownership

Ownership means a lot of things, but mainly that you don’t wait for problems to find you. It means that if you see a problem, you assume it’s your job to either fix it or find someone else who can, and then to make sure it happens. It means not ignoring emails because, hey, not my problem! It means taking issues seriously and making sure they are dealt with. Someone with a sense of ownership would never sweep a problem under the rug or blithely hope that someone else will deal with it.

You could equate ownership with responsibility, but I think it goes beyond that. “Responsibility” often takes on the hue of a burden or delegation of an unwelcome task, while “ownership” implies that you are invested in the outcome.

Ownership often means stepping outside of your comfort zone. You may think you’re not the best person to deal with something, but if no one else is doing it, than you absolutely are. Just step up, own the problem, and get it done.

Ownership does not mean that you do all the work–that would be draining, debilitating, and ultimately impossible. It does not mean that you specify bounds for your responsibility and forbid others to encroach. It especially does not mean code ownership in the sense that only you are allowed to change your code.

Ownership is a mentality that defies strict hierarchies of control in favor of a more egalitarian opportunism.

Closely related to the idea of ownership is taking responsibility for your mistakes. This means you don’t try to excuse yourself, shift blame, or minimize the issue unnecessarily. If there’s a problem you caused, be straight about it, explain what happened, what you’re going to do to prevent it, and move on.

Together, these ideas on ownership will gain you a reputation as someone who wants the best for the team or product. You want to be that person.

Remember, if you are ever having the thought, Someone ought to…–stop! That someone is you.

Data-Driven

A good developer does not make assumptions. Experience is good, yes, but data is better. Far, far better. Knowing how to measure things is far more important than being able to change them. If you make changes without measuring, then you’re just a random-coding monkey, just guessing that you’re doing something useful. Especially when it comes to performance, building a system to automatically measure performance is actually more important than the actual changes to performance. This is because if you don’t have that system, you will spend far more time doing manual measurement than actual development. See the section on Automation below.

Measurement can be simple. For some bugs, the measurement is merely, does the bug repro or not? For performance tuning of data center server applications, it will likely be orders of magnitude more complicated and involve systems dedicated to measurement.

Determining the right amount of data to make a decision is not always easy. You do have to balance this with expediency, and you don’t want to hold good ideas hostage to more measurement than necessary. However, there is very little you should that do completely blind with no data at all. As a developer, your every action should be independently justifiable.

The mantra of performance optimization is Measure, Measure, Measure. This should be the mantra of all software development. Are things improving or not? Faster or not? How much? Are customers happier or not? Can tasks be completed easier? Are we saving more money? Does it use less memory? Is our capacity larger? Is the UI more responsive? How much, exactly?

The degree to which you measure the answer to those questions is in large part dependent on how important it is to your bottom line.

My day job involves working on an application that runs on thousands of servers, powering a large part of Bing. With something like this, even seemingly small decisions can have a drastic effect in the end. If I make something a bit more inefficient, it could translate into us needing to buy more machines. Great, now my little coding change that I didn’t adequately measure is costing the company hundreds of thousands of extra dollars per year. Oops.

Even for smaller applications, this can be a big deal. For example, making a change that causes the UI to be 20% more sluggish in some cases may not be noticed if you don’t have adequate measurement in place, but if it leads to a bad review by someone who noticed it, and there are adequate competitors, that one decision could be a major loss of revenue.

Solid Tests

Notice that I don’t say “tests”, unqualified. Good tests, solid, repeatable tests. Those are the only ones worth having.

If you see a code change that doesn’t have accompanying test changes, don’t be afraid to ask the question, “Where are the tests?” The answer might be that existing tests cover the change, or that tests at a larger scope, or in a different change will cover it, but the point is to ask the question, and make sure there is a satisfactory answer. “Manual test” is a valid response sometimes, but this should be very rare, and justifiable.

I cannot say how many times I’ve been saved due to the hundreds of unit tests that exercise my code, especially when I’m attempting a big internal refactor, usually for performance reasons.

As important as good tests are, it’s also important to get rid of bad tests. Don’t waste resources on things that aren’t helpful. Insist on a clean, reliable test suite. I’m not sure which is worse: no tests, or tests you can’t rely on. Eventually, unreliable tests become the same as having no tests at all.

Automation

An effective developer is always trying to put themselves out of a job. Seriously. There is more work than you can possibly fit in the time allotted. Automate the heck out of the stuff that annoys you, trips you up, is repetitive, is frequent, is error-prone. Once you can break down a process into something so deterministic that you could write a script for someone else to follow and get the same result, then make sure that someone else is a program.

This is more than just simple maintenance scripts for server management. This is ANY part of your job. Collecting data? Get it automatically ingested into the systems that need it. Generating reports? If you’ve generated the same report more than twice, don’t do it a third time. Your build system requires more than a single step? What’s wrong with you?

You have to free yourself up for more interesting, more creative work. You’re a highly paid programmer. Act like it.

Example: One of my jobs in the last year has been to run regular performance profiling, analyze the results, and send them to my team, making suggestions for future focus. This involved a bunch of steps:

  1. Log onto a random machine in the datacenter.
  2. Start a 120-second CPU profile.
  3. Wait for 120-seconds plus a few minutes for processing, symbol resolution, etc.
  4. Compress file, copy to my machine
  5. Analyze file–group, filter, and sort data according to various rules.
    1. Look for a bunch of standard things that I always report on
  6. Do the same thing for a 900-second memory/exception/thread/etc. profile.

This took about an hour each time, sometimes more.

I realized that every single part of this could happen automatically. I a wrote a service that gets deployed to every datacenter machine. A couple of times per day it checks to see whether we need a profile, whether the machine is in a good state to profile, etc.. It then runs the profiler, collects the data, and even analyzes the data automatically (See Chapter 8 of Writing High-Performance .NET Code for a hint about how I did this). This all gets uploaded to a file server and the analysis gets displayed on a web-site. No intervention whatsoever. Not only do I not have to do this work myself anymore, but others are empowered to look at the data for themselves, and we can easily add more analysis components over time.

Unafraid of Communication

The final thing I want to talk about is communication. This has been a challenge for me. I definitely have the personality type that really likes to disappear into a cave and pound on a keyboard for a few days, to emerge at the end with some magical piece of code. I would delete Outlook from my computer if I could.

This kind of attitude might serve you well for a while, but it’s ultimately limiting.

As you get more senior, communication becomes key. Effective communication skills are one of the things you can use to distinguish yourself to advance your career.

Effective communication can begin with a simple acknowledgement of someone’s issue, or an explanation that you’re working on something, with a follow-up to everyone involved at regular points. Nobody likes to be kept in the dark, especially for burning issues. For time-critical issues, a “next update in XX hours” can be vital.

Effective communication also means being able to say what you’re working on and why it’s cool.

Eventually, it means a lot more–being able to present complicated ideas to many other people in a simple, understandable, logical way.

Good communication skills enable you to be able to move beyond implementing software all by yourself to helping teams as a whole do better software. You can have a much wider impact by helping and teaching others. This is good for your team, your company, and your career.

Do you have a good engineering culture?

I assume one big prerequisite to all of these attributes: You must have a solid engineering environment to operate in. If management gives short shrift to employee happiness, sound software engineering principles, or the workplace is otherwise toxic, than perhaps you need to focus on changing that first.

If your leaders are so short-sighted that they can’t stand the thought of you automating your work instead of just getting the job done, that’s a problem.

If bringing up problems or admitting fault to a mistake is a career-limiting move, then you need to get out soon. That’s a team that will eventually implode under the weight of cumulative failure that no one wants to address.

Don’t settle for this kind of workplace. Either work to change it or find some place better.

 


Check out my latest book, the essential, in-depth guide to performance for all .NET developers:

Writing High-Performance.NET Code by Ben Watson. Available now in print and as an eBook at:

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