Developer experiences from the trenches
Intellect, the ability to focus in on a problem and sheer time committed to the craft of programming are critical and pretty obvious elements that make a programmer good. Having these things on your side is partly luck and partly an expensive time commitment. However, I believe there are further traits that can be developed through habit-forming practice that make a programmer excellent.
Some programmers transcend being merely good; they are highly effective. This often becomes apparent when you see them becoming the team’s de facto problem solver, or when they reliably design and implement excellent-fit solutions, topping their previous attempts.
In the teams I’ve participated in and built I have found three traits that recur in highly effective programmers. When I find even one of them they often go on to live up to great promise. Any one of them is a strong tell, and more is a sign of a programmer with serious potential to be impactful.
The first trait is intellectual curiosity. When you find someone who tinkers because they are curious about new results you are engaging someone who has internalized the impetus for pioneering solutions. Internalization of curiosity is key because it is the surest driver of tangential exploration. A programmer who has exercised solutions to problems they dreamt up themselves out of pure interest in discovery has strengthened their abilities in excess of the rigours of standard professional performance. Professional programming makes you strong enough to stand tall in full gravity. Intellectual curiosity exceeds that; it is like training with a weight belt on.
The second trait is tenacity. Tenacity is the sworn enemy of “Cool, it works! We’re done!”. Those who internalize this trait never spitball their way to a final solution. If multiplying by negative one solves the problem but they don’t know why, they remove it and figure out why the sign inversion makes everything seemingly work. Inherent to this behaviour is the inclination to traverse underneath abstractions. Making it work is no longer the quest; the search is for a deeper understanding, one that makes the answer readily apparent. Illuminate the problem with a hard-earned understanding of the facts and the rest is small muscle movements.
An example of tenacity is spending three weeks tracking down a memory leak in ostensibly mature system libraries. Working through source, compiling it yourself, pouring over machine code, examining the compiler, and then reading your processor instruction manual. Rewriting portions of libc to verify results. Thermal imaging in your data center. Whatever it takes.
The final trait is a willingness to self criticize. Most programmers eventually have the experience of looking at code from a few years back and cringing. While syntax choices evolve, the cringe truly comes from a looking-in view of a naive problem solver doing their best and missing their mark. When a priori derived solutions are mismatched with the present understanding of a problem, personal growth is felt at a gut level.
An unprompted individual who consistently criticizes their own solutions is going to blossom quickly. Any valuable solution space is enormous, and the ability to criticize from a positive vantage point is the natural habitat of an always improving programmer.
Those are the three traits I’ve seen that suggest a programmer is going to be promising and impactful. Next time I am going to ponder the question that affects your effectiveness more than anything else: How do you decide what to work on?