Going from the 80% to the 20%

posted on 03/25/08 at 10:18:35 pm by Joel Ross

Back in November, Jeff Atwood put together a post about the two types of developers: The 80% and the 20%. The 80% are the 9-5 type developers - they may be great at what they do, but they don't have an overwhelming passion for it - it's a job, and nothing more. Once they leave the confines of their office, they don't think about writing software until they return to the office the next morning.

The 20% are the people who are passionate about software development and are constantly looking for ways to better themselves. They read blogs. They speak at user groups and code camps. They're active in the community and are constantly pushing themselves to learn new things and find better ways to do what they're already doing.

In reality, it's probably more like 95% / 5%, but the definition of the groups remain the same. The real question isn't what group you're in - if you're reading this, you're most likely in the 20%, The real question is at what point do you (or did you) transition from the 80% to the 20%?

I know it's possible. I did it. I used to come to work at 8 and leave at 6 - not quite 9 to 5, but the bottom line was the same - when I left the office, I didn't think about work until I came in the next day. Nor did I think about software development. I learned what I had to learn to do my job, but nothing more. I was putting in my time and taking home a paycheck. I was good at what I did, but I didn't really do anything to push myself.

I don't remember exactly when it happened, but it did. I started finding blogs when I did searches. I started to wonder what this whole blogging thing was bout, and I felt like I needed one. So I started one, and I started following a few blogs. The key to switching from the 80% to the 20% was when "following a blog" went from a bookmark in IE to a subscription in Newsgator.

Eventually, I started doing other "20%-ish" things. I was writing software for fun. I started a side business specifically to fill in some of the gaps in my experience. I started speaking (although infrequently) publicly at .NET user groups. I used the best tools for my projects regardless of what the Microsoft corporate line is. I still feel like I'm barely in the 20%, but I'm there. I made the transition.

One of the questions that keeps popping up is, "How do we reach the 80% and teach them the best practices and the best software to use?" What we should be asking is, "How do we get more of the 80% into the 20% so they have the knowledge to learn that for themselves?"

Think about college. How much of what you learned in college applies to what you do right now? For me, it's next to none (of course, I wasn't in any of Professor Elder's classes!). So does that mean I don't think college is worthwhile? Absolutely not. Going to college was great for me. Not because of what I was learning, but because of the process I used to learn it. College taught me how to learn, which is more important to me than what I learned.

The 20% would be doing the community a disservice if at the end of the day, the best they did was teach other developers the best practices for software development today. How many people thing NUnit will be the unit testing framework of choice in five years? Some would say MbUnit has already usurped NUnit. The 20% would be much better off to show them the process to learn that for themselves.

I don't see a lot of discussion about people moving from one group to the other. But remember, some of the developers in the 80% are very smart. While some are content with where they're at, there is a good percentage that just haven't been exposed to the community and aren't even aware there are other options out there. Once they're aware, they may jump in with both feet and have lots to offer, and in the end, we'll all benefit.

I don't have the answers as to how to affect that transition process. I won't pretend to. But I know that the focus on Us vs. Them is the wrong approach. We need to start thinking about how we as a community can grow that community as a whole, and push that 20% to actually be 20% or even more.

I wrote this post last night. For the first time since I started writing here, I considered not posting it. Yes, I've thrown away posts before, but those were because they no longer applied. I think this one still applies, but I struggled with posting it. Obviously, I decided to go ahead. Also, just because I feel like I should disclose where this is coming from, there is a post by Dan Hounshell that prompted me to write about some of these thoughts. His post is worth a read, as are the comments.

Categories: Consulting, Personal, Development