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Joel's Myopic view on Software Developers as Prima Donnas

Don't mess with Joel Spolsky's Air Conditioning. That is probably the most correct thing he has said on his most recent posting about Developer Abstraction. The sad thing is that the impression I get from the article is that good developers are myoptic Prima Donnas. What bothers me the most is the subtext that it's OK.

Jumping in the Way Back Machine this reminds me of a Sales Engineer I once had the pleasure of working with nearly 10 years ago when I was in Silicon Valley (on the subject of Prima Donnas... but I digress). After the sales team hired him at a rather nice salary he needed to work with those of us in development to understand our application. He sure loved to talk and thought a lot of himself, but he uttered one gem that got us all going: "There are really only two roles in a Company: Sales and Sales Support." While true from a certain viewpoint, it got at me and the VP of R&D in the wrong way. It got at us not because of the sales centric view of the company (which for a sales person is OK) but because of how dismissively it viewed the rest of the organization. That guy didn't last long. Other more cordial people lasted longer, like the guy who couldn't install our application to save his job: he lasted nearly a year. Moron yes, Prima Donna no.

Later Joel places a big analogy on Developers as lead singers like Dolly Parton. But I would like to make a distinction between Artists and Professional. Dolly happens to be both a Professional and an Artist, while singers like Billy Joel are great Artists but have some really unprofessional tendencies. But they are all musicians. Dolly may be the star of the show, and there are people who are instrumental in getting he music out there and making sure that she doesn't have to worry her pretty little head over where the XLR cords go so her microphone works. But there are also other musicians who are also instrumental because they play the instruments that make the balance of the music. They often aren't as prominent as the lead singer, but believe me they know how to setup, tear down, pack, and tune their own gear (although once you get good enough you don’t have to). Without the other supporting musicians (and tour staff) the Prima Donna is just another wannabe at the American Idol tryouts.

So while Joel thinks that his developers shouldn't worry their pretty little heads over air conditioning issues and that they should just sit down and spin their code, I disagree. If all you know is the development abstraction IMHO you don't know enough, and can cause unneeded friction on the company and can wear things down. If you hide the other functions of the company behind a facade, you only feed the tendency to become a Prima Donna . For most companies, one Prima Donna is one to many.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 12, 2006 11:51 AM.

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