Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is your ego getting in the way of your career?

If you saw the title of this post and thought to yourself  "Of course its not, how could being the smartest guy in the office hold me back." your ego might be getting in the way of your career.   If you are a great teacher but not a great listener your ego may be getting in the way of your career.   If you don't wake up every day thinking that you could fill Texas Stadium with what you don't know your ego may be getting in the way of your career.  As programmers we are typically very smart people, we solve complicated and abstract problems and others tend to marvel at our skills.  We all know that look of amazement on somebody's face when we tell them that we are a programmer.  So who could blame us for being a little "self confident".  

The key to a successful career as a software developer is to not let that ego get in our way.  I feel that there are two types of programmer egomaniacs: the "Kobe Bryant" and the "Kwame Brown".  I'm sure that most of you who read this will know who Kobe Bryant.  However, Kwame Brown is a name that most of you probably won't know.  That's because he is one of the biggest busts in NBA history.  A former number 1 draft pick who never realized his full potential and now has a hard time staying on an NBA team.

Lets start by talking about the Kwame Brown.  I was a Kwame Brown so this part will be highly introspective.  Kwame Brown was a number one overall draft pick in the NBA right out of high school.  In high school he was a big fish in a little pond.  He was talented but not as talented as he thought he was.  Since he had a relative amount of success in high school never put in the work that took to succeed at the next level.  

ColdFusion seems to breed more of these types of developers than other languages.  That is likely because its so easy to achieve a relative amount of success with ColdFusion.  The Kwame Brown doesn't like frameworks because they think then can roll their own, the Kwame Brown writes mostly in components and feels like they know all there is to know about object oriented programming.  This person picks up a technical book, reads the first two chapters and thinks to themselves, "I already know this stuff" and puts the book down. 

Its hard to say exactly what snapped me out of my rut.  I think it started when I had to open up my code to a outside consultant.  Something finally clicked inside me where I asked myself, "Is this something I'd be proud to show somebody else?"  I was somewhat confident in my approach (of course I was, I was a Kwame Brown) however this consultant started asking me things like, why aren't you using coldspring?  Why didn't you just use ColdBox or Model Glue?  Finally I decided to open up to and learn about these things he was talking about.  And the more new things I learned the more I realized that I didn't know.  IoC, unit testing, MVC, refactoring, design patterns, I was in trouble! 

The developer I am today is a completely different person than that one from two years ago.  Today I wake up each day thinking about how much I don't know and how much fun it will be to learn something new.  I actively explore different programming languages, and I read, a lot.  I read books cover to cover now.  I approach early chapters as an opportunity to learn something new about something that I may or may not I feel that I already know.   I try to blog about what I learn, nothing tells you if you understand something or not like sharing it with others.   I love looking at others code now, I pull a lot of open source projects from github and try to understand the code behind these.  I went so far as to enroll back in school to pursue a Computer Science degree to make sure that I had all the fundamentals I needed to become the best programmer I could.  One of the unexpected side effects of this is that I have a renewed passion for my job.  Each and every day I look forward to coming into work and challenging myself.  I have bad days for sure, but the number of good days I have now far outnumber the bad ones. 

This brings us to the "Kobe Bryant" type of ego maniac.  This person is the "superstar" programmer, a natural talent.  This person reads a book on regular expressions and is churning out complex pattern matches the next day.  They are usually the smartest person in a room full of smart people,  and they want you to know it.  This type of person rarely laughs at others jokes but will heartily laugh at a bug they discover in someone else's code and not hesitate to tell that person about it but rarely offer to sit down with that person and help them learn how to fix it. They hate sharing their knowledge because they get easily frustrated explaining things to others who don't "get it".  This type of developer also hates listening to others suggestions.  When a Kobe Bryant has use a module written by another developer the first thing they do is rewrite the code. 

I've worked with many of them before and I've rarely seen them become anything more than executors.   This is because that the people higher up the food chain can see how others react to these types of developers. Their team members will rarely go out of their way to sing this person's praises knowing that it will only feed their ego.  Instead their peers will watch them closely for any mistake and make sure they point it out to them and everybody else on the team.  Typically the Kobe Bryant developer is so self assured that they either don't see how others react to them or are so confident that their superior knowledge will surely allow them to rise to the top regardless if others like them or not.  Also the people doing the promoting know that they'll have to work more closely with this person and will balk at the notion of having increased interaction with this type of egomaniac.

So what can you do if you have some "Kobe Bryant" in you?  First learn to listen to others and sincerely try to value others input.  Here your reputation can work to your advantage.  If you are known as being a know it all telling someone else "that's a really good idea, thanks for sharing" can go farther than if it was said by someone who is constantly throwing around compliments.  Also actively seek out others opinions.  Even if you have no intention of listening to what they have to say just ask someone, "would you mind looking this code over for me" will make others feel that you value their opinion.   Lastly know that its OK to laugh at a stupid joke, nobody will question your intelligence if you laugh at the latest "Two guys walk into a bar" joke.

 If you suffer from either of these conditions its not too hard to turn things around and become a "Tim Duncan".  Tim Duncan is liked by others, is always working hard on his game, and is a true leader on a championship team.  That's the kind of developer I want to be, however I know that I have to work hard each and every day to achieve it and not fall back into my Kwame Brown ways.
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