Is there such a thing as ‘talent’ in programming?
Developer performance and how it impacts the industry is a big deal – so much so that Jacob Kaplan-Moss made an attempt to tackle it during his PyCon 2015 keynote. Calling himself a mediocre programmer, he confronts the programming talent myth.
Jacob Kaplan-Moss is often noted as being the man behind the Python Web framework Django, however this actually isn’t the case. Being incorrectly credited for Django’s creation has been described by Jake Edge as contributing to the myth of developer performance and how it impacts the industry.
Reflecting on his own experience of the rockstar mentality, Kaplan-Moss used his keynote at PyCon 2015 to address the lack of a metric to measure coding ability, as well as how our simplistic view of someone ‘rocking’ or ‘sucking’ at programming does little to entice others to learn the ropes.
Ninjas and rockstars
Assessing whether someone is a programming ninja or developer rockstar goes against the measurement of “normal distribution” that Kaplan-Moss believes should exist. Having the talent to program, versus merely having the ability, is somewhat of a polarising idea:
But that would mean that programming skill is somehow distributed on a U-shaped curve. Most people are at one end or the other, which doesn’t make much sense. Presumably, people learn throughout their careers, so how would they go from absolutely terrible to wonderful without traversing the middle ground?
“Most people are average at most things”, meaning that a majority of programmers out there would fall off the scale. They wouldn’t rate as terrible, but they’re definitely not rockstar quality either. So the question needs to be asked: Is the story about programming talent just a lie?
Kaplan-Moss uses the example of running to make his case. What does it take to be a runner? Do these qualities differ in the programming world? Very much so, according to Kaplan-Moss:
Over half a million people ran a marathon last year – did all of them have an innate talent for running? Most of those people ran their marathon rather badly, but a tiny fraction ran theirs very fast. To be a runner, though, all it takes is a pair of shoes. We don’t even believe that you have to particularly like running to be a runner.
In the developer world, the same minimum standard doesn’t apply. While it takes a lot of training and commitment to be able to finish a marathon, the same isn’t required to write a bunch of code. “We tell ourselves different stories about one skill, coding, than we do for another, running”.
This kind of narrative is detrimental to the programming cause says Kaplan-Moss, because it prevents the growth and improvement that the industry needs, on top of leading people to work crazy hours out of a need to fulfil the programmer myth: “They must be passionate about their career, they must think about programming every waking moment of their life”.
Skills vs the “real programmer”
Programming is a certain set of skills that are merely learned and performed, with coding only one part of the equation for Kaplan-Moss. Design, communication and writing all feature in a developer’s skill-set, so we therefore “tend to assume that someone is the minimum of their skill-set”.
This again serves to only intimidate newcomers in the field, with Kaplan-Moss pushing for “average is fine” as a standard that invites more people to join the profession and community as a whole.
But who do we assume a ‘real programmer’ to be? At this point, Kaplan-Moss addresses the discrimination that still exists in the tech space and how diversity can be addressed by changing our perception of what a ‘real programmer’ ought to look like. He returned to his running analogy to drive the point home:
There are all kinds of runners – sprinters, distance runners, marathoners, etc. – of all shapes, sizes, genders, ages, and races. All of them have different metrics for success and all are capable of being successful by their own metrics.
The average programmer ideal was also echoed in a conversation he had with Lynn Root, a Python Software Foundation board member and founder of the San Francisco chapter of PyLadies. When Kaplan-Moss commented on “all of these bad-ass women programmers” that the PyLadies group was representing, Root agreed but added that “we’ll know we’ve been really successful when there are a whole bunch of average women programmers”.
You can see Kaplan-Moss’ keynote in full here.