Are Odd Developers Just Misunderstood?

Monday Oct 17th 2011 by Eric Spiegel
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Plenty of software developers have a reputation as being, well, unique characters. But it pays to look beneath the surface.

ALSO SEE: Are Quirky Developers Brilliant or Dangerous?

I’m willing to bet that many future developers could have been spotted in their teenage years. They typically would stand out from the crowd. Way out, probably.

For example, we all knew kids like Fred. Fred’s dad was a science teacher at the school and Fred was into all kinds of weird things.

At least they seemed odd and out of the mainstream to most teenagers back in the early 80’s. He liked playing Dungeons and Dragons and always had his nose in a book. While other boys were fooling around with girls, Fred was only interested in fooling around with computers.

He had a TRS-80, an Apple II and one of the first laptops – a Sharp PC-5000. I’m not sure how his dad could afford these early techie toys, but Fred lived for them.

He once took the bulky laptop to a church fair because he had written a program that would calculate the odds of an over and under game based on historical trends. Fred lost a lot of money that day, but he certainly attracted a crowd. He swore it was just a matter of tweaking his code algorithm – he’d be back next year to rob the church blind.

The next day in gym class, Fred was picked last during team selections and relentlessly teased by the so-called in-crowd. I often wonder now if Fred knew back then that most of the teasers would never be as successful as he would be some day.

Yet, there are many “Fred’s” that work in software development teams that are still ostracized and misunderstood, even though they may be taking home a nice salary.

I have written about dealing with weird developers in the past. Some of the comments from the techie community agreed that developers were cut from a different cloth. Others thought I was perpetuating a stereotype.

I would argue it is somewhere in between.

If it were an absolute stereotype, wouldn’t the most popular TV show in the geek community, “The Big Bang Theory,” have at least one software developer in the cast instead of a bunch of astrophysicists? I guess some scientists have to write code, too, so we’ll cut them a break.

It may be just anecdotal, but of the many software teams I have worked with over the years, there is always one guy (almost never a female) whose personality makes them stand out from the team in some way. In many cases their quirks are embraced by the team, mainly because the code they produce is so brilliant.

But I have also seen developers that were treated badly by their team and by management – just like Fred was in gym class – because they were different.

My favorite comment was from an old-timer developer who stated that after twenty or so years in front of CRTs and LCDs, he thought his gene structure had been altered. Instead of resulting in super powers (like he hoped) it just left him a bit off of center. Not normal.

But who’s to say that “not normal” isn’t just an indicator for genius potential?

It isn’t just developers and those that work in IT that are perceived as odd by others. Musicians and artists are also stereotyped as being different, even seen as on the fringes of society.

Would it be fair to say that being weird is a form of creativity?

Perhaps what is really going on is that there is a “creative class” of folks who are actually adding more meaning to society than those who conform to society.

And if these creators have grown up dealing with a-holes giving them a hard time, then is it any wonder that they choose to lose themselves in careers and hobbies that don’t require as much human interaction?

I imagine it became apparent quickly to these smart kids that computers would never treat them badly like the in-crowd. Computers only do what they are told (let’s leave the artificial intelligence discussion for another article).

I think as a team manager of developers it is critical to find ways to maximize this creativity and make sure the odd developers have the opportunity to shine. Be vigilante for any bullying or ostracizing going on within the team and find ways to build team cohesiveness.

It’s best to have a good mix of personalities on a team that complement each other, but it’s up to the manager to help them gel and build an environment conducive for producing great software.

This doesn’t mean that someone’s oddness should disrupt the team to the point of distraction. Another commenter on my last article talked about naming variables after his ex-girlfriends. Now could a developer really have that many ex-girlfriends?

I’m kidding.

The point here is that there may be rules to follow – such as naming conventions to make the code more easily maintainable. Try to find positive ways for the most creative developers on the team to express themselves.

Allow them to work on side projects and encourage out-of-the-box thinking that could provide a breakthrough in design, productivity, etc.

I can’t say that I know Fred turned into some great contributor in the software development world or even if he made out better after enhancing his over-under algorithm. I can’t even find him on Facebook.

But I know there are some pretty decent success stories from those that grew up outside the mainstream and may have been considered a bit odd.

There was this one guy who tinkered with the earliest computers and in his spare time made something like a bomb and took it to the school cafeteria. Today that person would be branded a terrorist and shipped to Guantanamo Bay.

This soon-to-be-famous odd genius was none other than Steve Wozniak.

His friend and fellow tech trend setter Steve Jobs was interviewed about him by Playboy back in the 80’s. This quote from the article said it all.

“I think Woz was in a world that nobody understood. No one shared his interests, and he was a little ahead of his time. It was very lonely for him. He’s driven from inner sights rather than external expectations of him, so he survived OK.”

Yep, he survived ok, and so will most of the Fred’s of the world, especially with a little help and understanding from coworkers and managers that will only benefit from their odd genius.

ALSO SEE: Dealing with Unaccountable Developers

AND: That Developer's Salary is Bigger than Mine!

AND ONE MORE: Are Quirky Developers Brilliant or Dangerous?

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