Strong opinions, weakly held

Classifying software developers

Industry analyst James Governor takes a shot at creating a taxonomy of developers, with, I assume, people who work in developer relations in mind. I started thinking about how I classify developers, and boiled it down to positioning them on two scales.

The first is vocation versus avocation. The second is inward focus versus outward focus.

The first scale has to do with motivation. Does the programmer program because it’s their job, or because they enjoy developing software for its own sake? It’s helpful to know where your colleagues and potential hires lie on this scale, because it matters a great deal in terms of managing them. It can be difficult to motivate developers who are at the vocation end of the spectrum to learn new things or be experimental if you can’t show them in a tangible way how doing so will be better for their career. On the other hand, with developers who are at the avocation end of the spectrum to quit writing code and ship. When they pick an approach to solving problems, it’s often hard to determine whether they’ve chosen the best solution for the business or they’ve chosen the solution that intrigues them the most.

Inward focus versus outward focus has to do with how developers prefer to solve problems. When an outwardly focused developer runs into a problem, they’ll use Google, they’ll ask a coworker, they’ll post a question on Stack Overflow or on the appropriate forum. When they’re assigned a task, they’ll look for open source libraries that satisfy the requirement or they’ll look for blog posts from people who’ve attacked the same problem in the past. They’re not afraid to get other developers on the team to stand in front of the whiteboard and puzzle out the problem with them. On the downside, these are the developers who create Web sites that use jQuery and MooTools and wind up loading 25 jQuery plugins on every page of a site. They copy and paste code they find in blog posts even if they don’t actually know how it works.

Inwardly focused developers generally prefer to rely on their own brainpower as much as possible. They often times exhibit “not invented here” syndrome but on a personal level. When they are working on a tough problem they often seem to disappear completely until they’ve figured it out. It often takes them longer to solve simple problems because they don’t tap into the community to see how other people problems. On the other hand, the further you are toward this end of the scale, the more likely you are to be able to solve deep problems at all. These developers are never stuck when Google doesn’t return any interesting results related to their problem. They’re also often the only developers on the team who actually know how the entire system works. They’re the people who actually invent stuff.

Both of these scales are value neutral. A good team will have developers who fall all over the graph. Teams that are too inwardly focused often fail to incorporate industry progress into their own code and practices. Teams that are too outwardly focused have a hard time gaining a competitive advantage in terms of technology, although they can often deliver very quickly. Teams with too many developers who program for its own sake often frustrate the rest of the company for a variety of reasons. Teams with too many career-focused developers often lack creativity and usually fail to achieve excellence.

The other scale that matters is good versus bad. Falling to one side or another on either of the previously mentioned scales doesn’t make you good or bad at software development, but goodness and badness manifest themselves in different ways based on the type of developer. Identifying good and bad developers is a separate discipline, one I’d like to get better at.


  1. One of the aspects I see missing from all of these programmer classifications is problem focus. Are you focused on solving a particular problem or set of problems or particular problem domain? Or are you just focused on the code and don’t care about the problem? Or some combination of both?

  2. Some very good points. I’ve wondered about some of my vocationally oriented co-workers in the past. I couldn’t personally be a developer if it was just for a check.

  3. I believe avocation is fueled by passion for it. Software as a hobby can instill a sense of purpose to the developer that sets him apart from the vocation-oriented individual.

    I agree with your assessment of a successful software group being comprised of both inwardly and outwardly focused developers. I find myself trying to straddle both of these orientations and feel like that it is beneficial to my work as a software developer.

    Going further with inwardly vs. outwardly focused individuals you can draw a separation between an engineer and a developer. The engineer could be classified as someone who understands how things tick whereas the developer could be classified as a solution creator using whatever means necessary.

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