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Apprenticeship Patterns by Adewale Oshineye, Dave Hoover

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Sustainable Motivations

Anyone who has ever seen a programmer at work...knows that programming itself, if the programmer is given the chance to do it his way, is the biggest motivation in programming.

Context

As an apprentice, you must develop your technical skills. Because of this you will often find yourself working in the messy realities of ambiguously specified projects for customers with shifting and conflicting demands.

Problem

Working in the trenches of real-world projects is rigorous, sometimes tedious, sometimes exhausting, often frustrating, and frequently overly chaotic or constraining.

Solution

Ensure that your motivations for craftsmanship will adapt and survive through the trials and tribulations of The Long Road.

There will be days, weeks, and months when you love your job. You’ll chuckle to yourself, in awe that you actually get paid to develop software. The software you write will flow effortlessly from your mind through your fingertips, beautiful to behold in function and design. These are good and extraordinary days. In other words, they are not your ordinary days.

As Paul Graham so rightly says, the typical programming job will put you face-to-face with tedious, vaguely defined, and needlessly complex problems. Nasty, wicked problems. What’s more, you may also be faced with bureaucracy, difficult personalities, and spotty leadership. There will be days, weeks, and months when you question your commitment to the craft. When you are confronted with such problems, it is crucial that your motivations to program are aligned with walking The Long Road. Here are a few examples to illustrate the point:

  • You hate your programming job and you’re motivated primarily by money. You find yourself focusing on climbing the corporate ladder over honing your craftsmanship. But you are also motivated by your reputation as a technologist, and this allows you to endure long enough for your job situation to improve.

  • You’re motivated primarily by your enjoyment of programming, but you’ve had a few months when you can’t feel the love. You are seriously considering abandoning the profession. Fortunately, you are also motivated by money, and you think that programming is your best option financially right now. You stick it out for the money and eventually your love for programming returns.

  • Your work on open source projects is motivated primarily by a desire to build your reputation. While your projects provide value to users around the world, your status as a hacker has remained stagnant and you are considering abandoning your work. Yet, your belief in the importance of free software keeps you going. Your projects eventually blossom and your reputation grows.

Some programmers become inadvertently trapped by their motivations. In More Secrets of Consulting, Dorset House, Jerry Weinberg describes this phenomenon as the Golden Lock: “I’d like to learn something new, but what I already know pays too well.” The risk of the Golden Lock highlights the importance of aligning your motivations with The Long Road, which requires the ambition to achieve mastery. A desire for mastery should motivate you to be wary of Golden Locks as they inevitably present themselves. As you progress as a craftsman, you will be faced with tough decisions that will determine whether you have the freedom to stay on The Long Road or whether you will find yourself trapped in a Golden Lock. Two examples:

Obie Fernandez is an exceptional Java programmer whose reputation was built on his Java expertise. Obie had a decision to make in 2005: continue to grow his Java-expert status, or learn a promising new web framework (Rails) in an unfamiliar language (Ruby). Obie chose to focus on learning in order to expand his toolset. This is the mark of a craftsman. He set aside the safety of his Java reputation and became a Ruby newbie, avoiding a Golden Lock. Ironically, this decision allowed Obie to ascend to even greater heights than his previous Java-expert status, and eventually led him to start the web application development firm Hashrocket.

On a couple of occasions, Marten Gustafson has found himself in the midst of a project death march because his passion for the craft induced him to throw all of his time and energy into the project. Marten is not the first nor the last young programmer to throw himself into this bottomless pit with the good intention of heroically saving the day. If you are walking The Long Road to mastery, it is essential that you Nurture Your Passion for software craftsmanship while keeping it in balance with the other aspects of your life. Naturally, there will be times where the scales will tip in one direction or another. Nevertheless, you should be conscious of this balancing act all along The Long Road.

Action

Write down at least 15 things that motivate you. Wait a little while, then write down another five. How many of your motivations are about what other people think rather than what you feel? Are the percentages different between your first 15 and the final 5? How many of the motivating factors can you do without? Now write down a list of the five most important things that motivate you. Keep that list somewhere that you can look at it when times get tough.

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