Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Of Rockstars and Bricklayers

Today we're going to start with a thought experiment.  You are one of the better coders in your company.  All the proof I need is that you're reading this.  Ok, that may be a little self-serving but it is true that the better coders I know are always reading something about coding.  It might be a new language, or a new technique, a programming question and answer site, or even a site that likes to rag on bad code

Based on how many Code Monkeys you know, it's easy to figure yourself in the top half of programmers, a 'good' coder if you will. An assumption that is easy to make is that the higher your productivity the higher your pay.  Is this true?  If you base it on simple experience, the answer is no.  It's too easy to get a job right out of college and get mediocre raises and then find yourself interveriewing candidates for openings in your own group where you have to offer 'market rates' to attract anybody.  If you've been there for 5+ years, given a company desperate to hire warm bodies, it doesn't take much for the new guy to be making 15-25% more than you even if he is a two-finger typist and can't spell SQL if you spotted him the 'S' and the 'Q'. 

Now, I'm happy where I am but it didn't take much to trigger my bad habit of thinking up 'what-ifs'.  The Stackoverflow podcast has been a good one for this sort of pondering.  Jeff and Joel have enough real-world experience to bring a ton of wisdom to the discussion on programming as it's own topic and in episode #42 discuss underperforming programmers.  I'd been reading about how star actors can command huge salaries based on their past work and the expected effect on the box-office if their name appeared on the marquee.  That major-league sports can have individuals who make 10-times what the lowest paid athlete makes on a single team, it doesn't take much to ask why programming doesn't see the same effect. 

I submitted this as a question to the Stackoverflow podcast which they spent a good 10 minutes on in episode 77. It didn't fit so well as a question on Stackoverflow itself, I suspect the culprit is the lack of code snippets. Interestingly enough I discovered the podcast when they were at episode 65 and decided to start listening back at #1 and was up to around #42 when I decided to contribute my question.  So anyway, when I saw the summary for #77, I didn't have the audio handy so jumped over to the transcript wiki for #77 and read the transcript.  It was a pleasant surprise at how engaged they were and that the question wasn't dismissed out-of-hand.  When I downloaded the audio, to hear their discussion it only reinforced my reaction.

The range of talent can be mighty wide even if there is some disagreement on the empirical numbers.  Joel Spolsky talks about the difficulty in finding great programmers, and uses similiar metaphores in a comparison with opera singers. Jeff has a similar take on Coding Horror.  Finding great talent is hard because there are only so many people who can do what you need done.

There have been some good discussions that has surfaced.  John Cook has a good argument based on lack of meaningful metrics.  It's a question that has been around for awhile.  Frank Wiles makes the claim that hiring average (or below) programmers actually costs your company money (followup post). Obviously when a company says they only hire the to 10%, they are deluding themselves or at least paying lip-service to wanting good programmers.  Joel does a great job of shattering that particular illusion

What about sales? In some fields top salesmen can bring home seven-figure incomes so we know that the wide range of incomes aren't limited to Hollywood and the big leagues.  James Kwak picks up on John's post and supports Joel and Jeff contention that paying the top performers much more than the average, outside of easily measured areas like sales and movies, has a corrosive effect on the group and the best coders end up leaving for greener pastures while the dregs hang on for dear life or are eventually pushed out.  I can't disagree.  It seems that if you are underpaid you have to ask yourself Ann Lander's question, "Am I better off leaving or staying put?"  Just realize that it's no use complaining to the company, the status quo works for them.
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