On Passion

A debate recently rehashed on (of course) social media revisited the discussion about whether or not a developer is a ‘real’ developer if she/he were doing it ‘just for the money.’ Some folks argued that developers who were just in it for the money were selling out. Others argued that doing a job for money aren’t doing anything different than anyone else, and that just plain-old-engineering is a perfectly reasonable activity.

I was easily sucked into this debate. Working on teams with passionate people is an amazing and wonderful experience. Hours literally melt away, even when doing simple drudgery work. The work needs to get done, and you feel a carnal pull toward it. Who doesn’t love getting lost like that?

Passion glosses over a lot of flaws though. The constant hours eventually drag on and drain you. Following passions and jumping from the next thing to the next thing to the next thing ends up leaving holes everywhere. “Passionate for technology” rarely correlates to “thorough and detail oriented”, and people sacrifice professional behavior under the guise of ‘passion’ way too regularly to be ignored. At the end of the day, you’re left with the same old technical debt you have on every other project with the added burnout of dealing with all of the passionate eccentricities.

Tech pays very well. First year programmers leaving school with a comp-sci undergrad degrees get six-figures. That sort of incentive can attract a lot of people, regardless of where their passion lies. One of my ex interns once told me that if she could make the same money she would spend her time sewing clothes. She then told me about the similarities she saw in the nature of sewing, compared to programming: the detail and focus of the work. Would she rather be sewing than programming? Absolutely, but she was looking for a career, not a hobby.

I remember being a young kid hearing a news anchor on the TV describe someone as ‘middle-class.’ I remember asking my mom what class was and what class we were and she thought and said “something like a sort of upper lower class. We aren’t poor-poor, but we don’t really have any money.” I knew we weren’t ‘poor-poor’. Nobody in the house was starving. We were in good health, and lived in a house well big enough for everyone (my mom, stepdad, and the four kids.) We didn’t have a lot of the things other families had though, and I do remember being unduly aware of how much things cost, and how visibly bad it made my parents feel when we asked for more than they could afford. We had hand-me-down stuff. I started on a TRS-80, because that was available at a thrift store. We got an Apple IIe, when my dad, who worked procuring equipment for researching professors, was tasked to replace it. My mom bought a used 386, when 486s and Pentiums came out. The Apple wasn’t working for her schoolwork.

I grew up more and more fascinated by computers. I would describe it as a combination of passion, fascination, and an ability to create some control in a less than stable location. Starting from playing games written verbatim in Basic from books to connecting to bulletin boards for reasons I can no longer remember. I would fiddle with things just so, to the point where the computer would be unbootable an hour before my mom got home. My fear of her yelling (she was a prodigious yeller) prompted just enough ingenuity that I was able to restore the machine to a working state at the last minute. A unique first taste of just-in-time optimization.

From my beginnings, there is not a clean differentiation between passion for technology, or simple financial drive, and I am not sure the distinction is necessary. I will say plainly, as the breadwinner of a family of five, financial viability is the first thing that I look for. Passion for the work comes second. I am blessed to have found a position that met both criteria. I have a career that enables my passion for technology and service, and I make enough to support my family. But there is no doubt that the finances weren’t there, I would move towards a career that made that possible, regardless of my passion.

Does that fact make me less passionate about technology? I don’t think so. I find that my ‘passion’ changes with the wind. Example: I deeply dove into functional programming with F#. I still love the language, but I am not spending every day pining about it anymore. What will I be passionate about five years from now? Will it be F#? Coaching? Writing? CrossFit? Spanish-style guitar? They are all some pretty good candidates given what I do now, but it’s entirely possible that will be something else that I haven’t thought about.

There’s a good chance I’ll still be a programmer though. In five years, my oldest will be in college. My youngest will be in his second year of high school, and my middle will be in her senior year. I will still need the same income that I do now, if only to continue to support them. I will passionately do so with the skills I started building with writing Basic games. I expect my ex-intern to do the same thing, to passionately support herself and her family with the skills she’s built, both programming and sewing. I guess I land on the side of being a passionate sell-out. As a wise man once said, “Take care of your chicken.”

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