This post is a bit of a counterpoint to my previous post about why I love programming even though it’s frustrating as hell sometimes. While I feel very lucky that I get to make a living doing something I love, I really don’t like my industry’s obsession with passion. It’s great if you feel passionate about programming, but it’s simply not necessary.
“But Mel,” you say “do you really want to work with some checked-out code monkey who half-asses everything, doesn’t give a shit about technical debt, and counts the minutes until it’s time to go home?” That’s a false dichotomy right there. There are many, many more choices than “passionate programmer” and “checked-out code monkey.” No, of course I don’t want to work with someone who doesn’t care about doing a good job. Fortunately, there are only about a zillion other points on the spectrum of “total passion” to “no passion at all.” Not being the most passionate programmer who ever lived in no way means you don’t care about doing a good job or want to improve. It just means you have other things going on in your life. Honestly, I think that’s healthier than being obsessed with just one thing.
Not to mention having other interests actually makes you a better coder. Seriously, go read that article it’s really good. Having just one obsession makes it much more likely that you approach problems from just one direction where having other interests allows you to come at problems from a different perspective. Take Adam Tornhill for example, he took ideas from forensic psychology and applied them to code analysis to get some really interesting results.
Obviously you can be passionate about more than one thing, but that still doesn’t mean passion is necessary to be a good programmer. You can take pride in your work even if you aren’t in love with what you’re working on. Using myself as an example, I stocked shelves at Wal-Mart before I moved to Victoria to go to Camosun. Was I passionate about taking things out of boxes and putting them on shelves? Of course not, but I still took pride in doing a good job. I went home every day knowing I made the department manger’s lives easier, not harder. Pro-tip: doing nothing is more helpful than leaving a mess someone else has to clean up.
Or to use a more relevant example, I don’t like doing front-end layout. The endless fiddling and wondering if that element would look better where it is or 5 pixels to the right isn’t satisfying for me, it’s just annoying. But if you give me a screen mockup, the end result will match it no matter how much swearing it takes. I don’t enjoy the process, but I do enjoy knowing I did a good job.
What’s really important is caring about the quality of your work, we just use “passion” as a proxy for that because we don’t know how to measure it. Unfortunately, we don’t really know how to measure passion, either. Sure, somebody who has side projects or contributes to open source is probably passionate about programming, but that doesn’t mean someone with no public git repos doesn’t give a shit. Simply having the time to work on side projects is an enormous privilege. People who have kids, or sick relatives they need to take care of, or who need to freelance to bring in extra cash, or who have disabilities or are neurodivergent, or would rather spend time with friends and family than do more work outside of work, or just have time-consuming hobbies may simply not have the time or energy to perform passion by working on publicly shareable side projects.
None of those things mean you don’t care deeply about programming, they just mean that you have other responsibilities or interests. Hint for employers: people who have responsibilities are more focused when they’re at work because they know they can’t put in a few extra hours later and they really hate changing jobs because it’s even more of a pain in the ass. That 20-something rockstar (ugh) dev who has no serious ties to the area might decide to move to San Francisco tomorrow. Your 30-something dev who has a mortgage and a kid is a lot less likely to randomly sell their house and uproot their family. Not that you shouldn’t trust single 20-somethings, but can we please stop pretending they’re the only worthwhile devs?
If you must look for passion, at least look for actual passion and not “free time and nothing better to do”. Ask candidates what they love about programming. Ask them if they have opinions about tools and languages and programming styles. Ask them what they would learn if their job gave them some free time and a resource budget.
But if you’re realistic about what you need, I think you’ll agree that passion is a red herring and what actually matters is caring about doing a good job. Fortunately, that’s a lot easier to find.