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Becoming a Programming Rock Star: 5 Traits that Make a Great Programmer

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Professor and software developer Matt Weisfeld talks about the similar traits shared by programmers and musicians and offers suggestions on what you need to do to become a programming rock star.
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Since transitioning from a career as a software developer to that of a college professor, I constantly search for bits of wisdom to pass along to my programming students. While I still do some software development, my primary focus is on mentoring the next generation of programming talent. Several years ago, in my quest to help students launch their programming careers, I wrote the following three paragraphs as guidance, which I still post at the start of each programming course

In my research regarding what employers are looking for in programmers, one of the most often asked questions in an interview is, “What type of software development have you done on your own at home? Have you written any products, shareware, websites, games, mobile apps, etc.?” Basically, they want someone who has a passion for programming.

I liken it to playing the guitar. If you want to get good at it, you have to really want to practice--you actually enjoy it. You always explore and try new things. You write your own songs. You collaborate with others in a band. You may even engineer your own recording techniques.

This is exactly what it takes to be a good programmer – you must want to program. Employers may not necessarily care what specific classes you completed in college. It is much more important to demonstrate what you really know, show that you are very good at independent learning, work as part of a team, and think out of the box. Basically, employers want programmers who are self-sufficient.

Within a few weeks of starting my first programming job, I realized that that many of the really good programmers were also musicians--mostly guitar players (perhaps this is because the piano keyboard is more linear whereas the guitar strings are more spatial).

I remember being called in to work one Saturday morning to debug a failed batch application with several members of my development team. As we were waiting for a long test to complete, the conversation turned to the fact that a few of the developers were in a rock band that had a gig that evening. As it turned out, there were actually many developers at this company who moonlighted as musicians.

And it wasn't just this company. I have worked for many software development organizations, and the musician/programmer connection was present at all of them. This connection was of interest to me because I had also been in several bands while I was in high school.  I started wondering if the same thought process that fueled my passion for playing musical instruments was also responsible for my love of programming.

I have been a software developer my entire professional career and, regardless of the job I held, I always came to the same conclusion: programming is not really a job, it is a mindset. When on the job, it’s common to hear people talking about the cool stuff they are programming at home.  To put it simply, programming is fun.

This is where I believe the connection between programmers and musicians becomes obvious. Perhaps all good programmers don't necessarily make good musicians or vice versa; instead, perhaps they simply think and behave in similar ways. As I see it, the five primary traits shared by programmers and musicians are passion, persistence, creativity, nonconformity and self-sufficiency.

Passion

Many of us took music lessons as kids, and for most of us practicing was the problem. If you don’t like something, practicing is a chore. Anyone who knows a really good guitar player understands that she doesn’t need to be told to practice. The same goes for good programmers.

The key is not necessarily practicing–’'s wanting to practice! Almost all good guitar players can't wait to get home and pick up their guitar and try something out. They don’t need to be told to practice--they simply want to. Almost all good programmers can’t wait to explore the next coding challenge.

Persistence

As a programming instructor, I obviously assign a lot of programming assignments and I often get the following response from students: “I tried this for 10 minutes and I can't figure it out.” 

The first time I heard this statement my jaw literally dropped and I almost blurted out, “10 minutes, you've got to be kidding!!”Then, fortunately, I recovered my composure, my teaching instincts kicked in, and I replied, “Well, this actually might take you several hours.”

Yet on the other side of the coin, there are students who will come to me and say something like this: “I worked in this for hours and I just couldn't get it to work. It was incredibly frustrating! Finally, after pulling my hair out, I finally got it to work and, wow, it was really cool! What else do you suggest I try?”

Some people don't handle frustration and/or failure well--and it's unlikely that they will ever be good musicians or programmers. I have seen so many musicians spend hours and hours (even days and weeks) trying to get something to work or sound a specific way. The same goes for programmers. It’s not uncommon for programmers to spend a lot of time just tweaking working code just to improve performance.

Creativity

Programming is as much an art as it is a science. People always think that programmers must be good at math and science; however, I have found that the best programmers are often people with degrees in music, art, history and other liberal arts backgrounds. I have also noticed that just about all the guitar players I know have their own website.

Simply playing an instrument can become so completely absorbing that it is a great relaxation technique - allowing an individual to, in a sense, meditate. Just watch the faces and mannerisms of a musician as they get lost in the music. This same effect happens to programmers. I can't even begin to count how many times I have witnessed a programmer getting frustrated at work and saying something like, “I have got to get out of this meeting, go to my cube, and just code for a while.” I first noticed this happening to me in college. I would embark on a coding tangent and then, before I realized it, four or five hours had passed and it was dark outside--and it was a good feeling! This is why people have hobbies. This is also why good programmers are a unique breed--programming is also their hobby. It can be a creative relaxation technique, just like music.

Nonconformity

One of the more amusing aspects about being a programmer is how stubborn we are. When I adopted my first cat, it didn't take me long to observe that cats and programmers have a lot of similar attributes. There is simply something about being a free spirit and resisting rules and constraints--a trait necessary to think out of the box. I see the same behavior in many musicians.

To illustrate this, all you need to do is look at some of the personality traits shared by musicians and programmers. Just consider what they wear. For example, rock musicians tend to be free spirits and are known to buck authority. After the early 60's, you don't see too many of them wearing suits and ties. I found the same thing with programmers and engineers--and I am not ashamed to say that part of the reason I loved many of my jobs was because I could wear jeans. I am convinced that not having to worry about what you wear (and other forms of conformity) enhances creativity and productivity.

Many of the start-ups that I worked at had empty rooms that we put to good use with beach balls and ping pong tables. We had many kick ball games right there in the office. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the ability to flow freely from creativity to play and back is a huge productivity boost. Seriously, people wanted to hang out at work! Most good software originated in small shops or groups (the garage). Many of the problems seem to arise when the software projects became larger.

Perhaps that is why successful start-ups are famous for their laid-back environments. I learned to love being a programmer/engineer because I was rewarded for being unconventional, and this totally fit my lifestyle.

Self-sufficiency

All of the previous traits culminate in this one: a programmer has to be self-sufficient. In my classroom I tell my students to think of me as their supervisor, not their teacher. When I assign them a task, my expectation is that they will try everything in their power to solve the problem before they ask me a question.

During the first week as a college professor, I was working with a student who was getting very frustrated with some code and eventually looked up at me and simply said, “Just tell me the answer.” The statement took me by surprise.The important thing was not necessarily to know the answer, but to learn the coding process. This was a question that a good programmer would never have asked and, at that point, I started paying close attention to the types of questions that the students asked – not just the questions themselves.

Ultimately, students must be prepared to ask me a question, but only when they have exhausted everything that they can think to try. As a programmer, if a supervisor has to do all of your work, then there is no need for your position to exist. On the other hand, if you don't ask questions when necessary, then the organization won't operate efficiently. 

This is the same for musicians. Each individual member of a band must be totally self-sufficient and not impede the work of the others. They must be able to instinctively and seamlessly integrate with the other band members, and they intuitively must know when to stop and get the group to work out problems (and bugs) to get the sound to work just right.

Conclusion

Finally, as a college professor, I am exposed to many teaching theories and techniques. One of the most often cited ‘rules’ of student behaviors is that students don’t do optional .

Specifically, this refers to the theory that students refrain from doing things that are not actually assigned or required as part of a degree, etc. As a programmer and a musician, this was another widespread belief that really confused me.  

This may well be the case if the person does not find the task interesting; however, for anyone who knows a really good musician or a really good programmer, you know that there is no such thing as optional. Something is either interesting or it is not. Musicians and programmers are famous (infamous) for going off on lengthy tangents, just for the pure pleasure of exploration. Who cares if it is actually assigned or part of a degree. I think it can be safely said that musicians and programmers absolutely will do optional.

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