The Death of the Programmers Toolbox

I gave a talk at That Conference in The Dells, Wisconsin yesterday on Building Software Products in a Weekend and something finally dawned on me. It’s something that I’ve probably talked about before, but it finally clicked. I had a moment of clarity.

So I want you to follow along with me on a little thought experiment.

What’s the last home improvement project you made? I want you to explain it to me in detail. Tell me how you improved that bathroom, how you redid your kitchen, how you built a fire pit in your backyard.

Here’s mine:

I put in some beautiful hardwood floors in my living room. We bought a foreclosed house so the carpet was destroyed, and it was just time for me to upgrade it to something that looked better and stayed clean. I couldn’t be happier with it.

I imagine yours was quite similar. But here’s the problem with us programmers. That’s NEVER how we describe our projects. If you asked a programmer to describe their last development project in home improvement terms, here’s what you would get:

I used a 5/8 drillbit in a 24v cordless Black & Decker Drill with rechargeable battery. Then I used diamond tipped 2 inch self-driving screws, which were spectacular. I followed that up with a light grain sandpaper applied at a force of 5psi in a slow motion.

Soooo…what did you build?

Oh, I put in a new doorknob.

We spend too much time talking about what is in the toolbox instead of what we actually made.

We spend time talking about what new shiny framework we use, some crazy piece of code we wrote, a new database schema, etc etc. We value ourselves based on our code instead of based on what we are actually building.

Let me tell you something straight: NO ONE pays you to write code, you are paid to solve problems.

Valuing yourself based on your code is a dangerous path, one that will lead you into the cold embrace of impostor syndrome. Instead, it’s time we start valuing ourselves based on our end product:

Based on what people actually pay us to do.

The next time you’re in a job interview or talking to someone about your project, be sure to take some time and talk about the actual product, about the actual business. You’ll be able to show the industry knowledge that you’ve gained by making these incredible tools by showing off the actual incredible tools.

There will always be a “new shiny” technology.

But something that will never leave you is your ability to solve problems and build great products. Start selling yourself based on that, not your diamond tipped self-driving 2 inch screws.

Because I could care less about the screws you use.

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