In Praise Of The Average Developer

Jacob Kaplan-Moss, a core contributor to Django, is many things. But he’s not, he insists, an “incredible programmer.” 

In fact, as he argued in his PyCon keynote, the false dichotomy of the rock star programmer and the weak developer is just that: 100%, completely false.

But also destructive. As Kaplan-Moss concludes, describing developers as either “great” or “terrible” leaves no middle ground. That often pushes them into punitive work hours to keep up, or dissuades them from making a career in technology at all. Neither is healthy.

We Are All Average Together

While Kaplan-Moss may not deserve to be labeled the inventor of Django or even its co-creator, two labels that others often affix to him, most would still call him an amazing programmer.

But he’s not. At least, not by his standards. As he told the PyCon crowd, “I am, at best, an average programmer.”


Yes, really. Because, as he goes on, we all are. We might like to think that we’re all above average, Lake Wobegon style, but the reality is that we’re nearly all at the fat part of the typical bell curve. 

And yet there’s a pernicious myth of the “10X” programmer, he continues, that drives recruiters to focus on white males that “look like a programmer” and keeps diversity and honest developers out. The heavy competition for developer talent only exacerbates this myth.

This is destructive.

Above Average Angst

Because of the myth of the Linus Torvalds-esque programmer, we set “an impossibly high bar for entry”, Kaplan-Moss argues. Instead, we should establish a lower bar, one that acknowledges that “average is actually pretty awesome.”

Otherwise, as Jake Edge’s exceptional summary captures, we end up with an unhealthy monoculture:

If the only options are to be amazing or terrible, it leads people to believe they must be passionate about their career, that they must think about programming every waking moment of their life. If they take their eye off the ball even for a minute, they will slide right from amazing to terrible again. That leads people to be working crazy hours at work, to be constantly studying programming topics on their own time, and so on.

This myth, he feels, “is driving people out of programming, and it is preventing “most of the growth we’d like to see.”

Thank Goodness For Microsoft

It is an exceptional keynote, one that you should absolutely take time to watch. 

As I did, I thought a lot about Microsoft. While Microsoft is in the middle of a rebirth, even during its heyday the company took a lot of grief from the Ubermensch developers that felt Microsoft had inexcusably dumbed down programming, systems administration, and more. 

But here’s the thing: Most of us need that dumbing down. Microsoft’s billions in the bank are a testament to this. Microsoft made it possible for an average programmer to do good work. Microsoft, in other words, dismantled that pernicious “10X developer” myth that Kaplan-Moss lambasts.

My concern, following Kaplan-Moss, is that we’re raising a new generation of developers to believe they have to be A-M-A-Z-I-N-G-! to be relevant. This, in part, has driven the “full-stack developer” phenomenon which, thankfully, is starting to wane, as Redmonk analyst Stephen O’Grady notes:

Developers have historically had an insatiable appetite for new technology, but it could be that we’re approaching the too-much-of-a-good-thing stage. In which case, the logical outcome will be a gradual slowing of fragmentation followed by gradual consolidation.

Consolidation implies a dumbing down of options so that we all congregate around similar technologies to solve problems. In this way, it’s very much an uprising of the average against the urge to pretend we all have to be exceptional.

Which, as Kaplan-Moss describes, is a very, very good thing.

Lead photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy

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