I’ve been doing development long enough that I can now look back and have some perspective on the art/craft/profession. I’ve been asked many times “how do you become a developer?” and I now have a decent partial answer. They are not being “super smart” or “good with computers” or things like that. I think those are artifacts of these other attributes. I’d also guess that these apply to engineering in general, but I’ll limit myself to my own turf.
Good developers have a compulsion to understand how things work. they open files with text editors to see if its just xml or a zip file with a different extension. They run benchmarks against things that don’t seem to matter. They add query parameters like debug=true to websites. They try to break stuff. And not just software, they probably know how an internal combustion engine or an air conditioner works. They probably can tell you a bit about how the minimum wage affects inflation. My grandmother used to give me old radios and gadgets strictly so I could disassemble them.
This attribute is probably the one that separates the wheat from the chaff the most. There are lots of people who can code, or manage a system, but the ones that excel will need to understand how things work, and know that every juicy answer yields even more delicious questions.
The ability/requirement to focus is the subject of many other blog posts, but I view focus in a slightly different way. Focus is not eliminating distractions or even maintaining “flow”, focus is the ability to keep a problem in your head until you’ve solved it. Distractions can hamper this, so can multitasking or other external factors, but good developers can work on something, go to lunch, or go home for the evening, and pick up right where they left off.
Hard Work/Genuine Interest
I think there is a certain amount of innate aptitude, but I don’t think development is an exception to the 10,000 hour rule Malcolm Gladwell popularized. Luckily, its a trade where we can log those thousands of hours at an early age and make it look like we’re goofing off. I started with LOGO in the second or third grade, moving onto translating my piano music into BASIC, learning that a coda is just like a GOTO. On to writing databases to track fantasy baseball status with MS Works, and so on. Sure, we spent many college nights taking over IRC channels with bots, and crashing MUDs with scripts and floods, and that may have looked like simple nerd mayhem, but those experiences have tremendous value in the “real world”.
You can know all the buzzwords and put on a good show, but you can’t really fake the level of interest that side projects demonstrate. There are plenty of good-enough developers out there who punch in and out, and there are even jobs where you do cool enough stuff that you don’t feel compelled to break out of the rut (we try to be this way), but if you still need to hack on your own, you’ve got potential.