We already know there's a vast divide between those who can program and those who cannot.
But the dirty little secret of the software development industry is that this is also true even for people who can program: there's a vast divide between good developers and mediocre developers. A mediocre developer can program his or her heart out for four years, but that won't magically transform them into a good developer. And the good developers always seem to have a natural knack for the stuff from the very beginning.
If experience doesn't make you a better programmer, what does? Are our skill levels written in stone? Is it impossible to become a better programmer?
To answer that question, you have to consider the obsessive nature of programming itself. Good developers are good at programming. Really good at programming. You might even say fanatically good. If they're anything like me, they've spent nearly every waking moment in front of a computer for most of their lives. And naturally, they get better at it over time. Competent software developers have already mastered the skill of programming, which puts them in a very select club. But if you're already in the 97th percentile for programming aptitude, what difference does a few more percentile points really make in the big scheme of things?
The older we get, the more we believe that's the only way to become a better programmer is by not programming. You have to come up for air, put down the compiler for a moment, and take stock of what you're really doing. Code is important, but it's a small part of the overall process.
Passion for coding is a wonderful thing. But it's all too easy to mindlessly, reflexively entrench yourself deeper and deeper into a skill that you've already proven yourself more than capable at many times over. To truly become a better programmer, you have to to cultivate passion for everything else that goes on around the programming.
Bill Gates, in a 2005 interview, follows up in spirit to his 1986 remarks:
The nature of these jobs is not just closing your door and doing coding, and it's easy to get that fact out. The greatest missing skill is somebody who's both good at understanding the engineering and who has good relationships with the hard-core engineers, and bridges that to working with the customers and the marketing and things like that. And so that sort of engineering management career track, even amongst all the people we have, we still fall short of finding people who want to do that, and so we often have to push people into it.
We'd love to have people who come to these jobs wanting to think of it as an exercise in people management and people dynamics, as well as the basic engineering skills. That would be absolutely amazing.
And we can promise those people within two years of starting that career most of what they're doing won't be coding, because there are many career paths, say, within that Microsoft Office group where you're part of creating this amazing product, you get to see how people use it, you get to then spend two years, build another version, and really change the productivity in this very deep way, take some big bets on what you're doing and do some things that are just responsive to what that customer wants.
You won't and you cannot become a better programmer through sheer force of programming alone. You can only complement and enhance your existing programming skills by branching out.