10 steps to becoming the developer everyone wants

There's more to career advancement than solving tough programming challenges

You thought it was all about programming skills. But you were wrong! Great code is fine, yet commanding better work and a higher salary depends on ensuring more people know who you are. In other words, you need to market yourself. Here's what seems to succeed.

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Developer tip No. 1: Blog

Set up a blog, and post more than once a month. Do real research and make sure you don't sound stupid. Seriously, learn to write. Do the stuff your grade-school English teacher taught you: Create an outline, draw a narrative, check the grammar and spelling. Then, with great sadness, simplify it and shorten it to the point enough where someone scanning it will have an idea of what it's about. The Internet does not tolerate nuance (nor does my editor).

Developer tip No. 2: Go open source

Don't believe the lies about open source. The younger among you may not remember the days where a developer could actually be unemployed, but even during the darkest stretches of the dot-bomb recession, all of the developers of the open source project I started were quickly back at work. Just make sure the open source code you produce reflects the kind of job you want. I wanted to solve hard problems with the simplest solutions possible, but I've interviewed developers who, as was clear from their open source code, wanted to complicate simple problems. Believe it or not, there's a market for that, but make sure your code reflects the market you're in.

Developer tip No. 3: Not six months, not 10 years

Don't switch jobs every six months. Seriously, the end of 100 percent developer employment will come again. When that time arrives, nothing will haunt you more than job-hopping. On the other hand, don't stay at the same place doing the same thing for 10 years. You'll become insulated and institutionalized. To stay valuable, you have to be familiar with more than how to code IBM's stack while at IBM in the IBM way. I haven't hired anyone who was at IBM or a similar organization for more than a year or two. They usually impress me in the interview but fail the programming test.

Developer tip No. 4: Eye on the new stuff, hands on the practical

Exceptionally young developers have a tendency to work on the shiny. Ruby is probably my favorite programming language, but it doesn't pay (on average) as much as Java, and the market is smaller. This may not always be true. Scala looks like it's coming on strong, but don't kid yourself about the market size -- it isn't here yet. On the other hand, don't stay still so long that you are the future equivalent of a COBOL or PowerBuilder developer either.

Developer tip No. 5: Write your own documentation

I can't tell you how many times I've worked on a project, only to be pulled into an executive meeting because I wrote a document or presentation they saw and understood. I always begin with an executive overview -- that is, the page you really have to read -- while the rest boils down to details in case you don't believe me. The question is: What does a very busy person have to know about the topic if it's not the only thing they're working on? What most managers want to know: Who can drive this to completion and won't BS me about how it's going? Write that way.

Developer tip No. 6: Brevity is the soul

One thing you learn about management right away is that the people who know what they're talking about tend to give shorter, more concise answers. When the responses grow long and complicated, it often means they don't know or won't commit. You also learn that tone is often inversely proportional to the importance of the topic. When really bad news hits, someone comes in the office, shuts the door, and whispers. When something is not inherently important but bothers someone anyhow, they will try and raise its prominence with an inflammatory tone.

Don't be that guy. Know what you're talking about, figure out how to summarize it, and have the details, but don't load every sentence with minutiae and don't build up the hype -- the sky probably isn't falling (but maybe someone should take a look at Jenkins because we haven't had a good build in a while). When all else fails, lead with the money. Make sure your numbers are well thought out, plug them into charts, and clearly demonstrate that one point is superior to another in dollars and cents.

Developer tip No. 7: Wow the crowd

Figure out how to give presentations and learn how to speak in public. Research a topic and make yourself at least an expert, if not the expert. Presentations to the public are generally better if they are in part entertaining. It takes a lot of embarrassing mishaps to develop this skill, but an engineer who can explain the matter in plain English to management and give an expert talk on a topic will almost always command a higher salary than one who doesn't.

Developer tip No. 8: Be realistic

Sure you like Erlang, but the market for Erlang isn't big. You should know more than one language, as well as "new" or newly hyped topics, but avoid such immature statements as "I won't code unless it's in Erlang" unless you've truly considered the business issues. It can pay to be a narrowly focused expert, but even that has a cost -- you'll be typecast according to your specialization, which may leave you high and dry when it's out of fashion. Sure, NoSQL is a better fit for your little project, but the company won't invest in it for a small one-off system. The RDBMS will work fine for this one.

Developer tip No. 9: Solve the hard stuff, know the tools

Put in the time to learn a few tools other people don't commonly know. What tools do you have that few know/use/understand and make you more effective than the people next to you?

For example, Aspect4j is not for everyone, but it sure as heck is for me. I use it for things that are wrong -- very wrong. I've rewritten .class file operations to make them run in Tomcat instead of WebSphere, though the original source was missing. I've fixed memory leaks in proprietary software. I've implemented a poor man's Wily Introscope. At each point, I looked like some kind of supergenius because I had a tool that few people had grokked yet -- and bothered to keep going when others decided to wait for the vendor. I live/breathed eclipse.org/mat so that I could not only fix leaks but tell you what struts action and parameters caused your OOME. There are others, but these simple tools for complex problems put a shine on a developer.

Developer tip No. 10: Practice humility

This is the least common skill among developers. Sometimes it means you get your hands dirtier than you want. Other times it means you don't let it go to your head when you pack a room. Geek fame comes and goes, but remember, it's what you did recently that brings them in. Next week, it could all be gone. In the words of Tyler Durden, "You are not special." Yes, trolls, I'm fully aware of the irony.

How do you know you're sought after?

Look left, look right: Is there a row of people doing basically what you're doing? Then you're not there yet.

Here are some signs that you've arrived: You're sitting in a row of people and they're all looking at you. People take their picture with you and you're not an American traveling in Japan. Your speaking engagements fill the house, and people tell you about how much they not only enjoyed your talk but also the last two you gave. The sales and marketing people actually value your opinion. Does that sound like you? Congratulations, you've made it.

That said, fame and success are fleeting, and you have to keep it interesting. Ironically, as you become a more sought-after developer, you code less and less. It becomes more economically efficient to communicate to and motivate others, as well as to delegate your "tend to" stuff. That may or may not be what you signed up for.

There will be times in your future when, once again, not every software developer who wants a job can get one. Particularly when the atmosphere becomes Darwinian, effective self-promoters do better than quiet toilers.

This article, "10 steps to becoming the developer everyone wants," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Keep up on the latest developments in application development and read more of Andrew Oliver's Strategic Developer blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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