software solutions / project leadership / agile coaching and training

Making a dent in the universe

Posted on December 2, 2011

A recent post on a local user group message board set off a firestorm of reaction. The gist of the post was that developers in Columbus “seem to focus on life in their work/life balance”, aren’t interested in working long hours, “check out at 5pm”, and that “the drive to put a dent in the universe doesn’t seem as strong here.”

Steve Jobs is the poster child for the startup/work hard lifestyle. Steve Jobs worked really hard, made a lot of money, and invented technology that changed the way that many of us doing things. When he died, scores of people were proclaiming his greatness and praising him for his contributions to society. According to many people, Steve Jobs made a large dent in the universe.

I hope I’m making a dent in the universe. But if I am, it’s not going to be because I write code. I’m thankful that I get paid to do something that I really enjoy doing. But at the end of the day, what difference does it make if I write some code that helps a company make more money?

I really love software development. I enjoy hacking on Ruby code at night and talking with people about which JavaScript framework is going to win. But while I sit here and watch my plasma TV and type on my high-end MacBook Pro while my iPhone beeps at me, people out there are struggling to get food for their kids to eat tonight, living in fear of disease or wars or corrupt governments, or sitting at home alone feeling lonely.

Obviously I’m not living in Africa running an orphanage and digging wells for poor people, but doesn’t mean that my time spent writing software is meaningless. I’m reminded of the scene in Chariots of Fire when Eric Liddell is talking about how he feels when he runs.

I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.

Eric was a missionary to China at times in his life, but he also found a lot of meaning in training and running in the Olympics. Some people said that running wasn’t as important as being a missionary, but running was a means to an end for him, that end being finding God’s pleasure in whatever he was doing.

We’ve all been given talents, and many of us use them every day at work. I hope that my ability to write software will give me opportunities to make a difference in lives of people that I encounter in the process. I hope that I can instill confidence in the people I work with and that we can build camaraderie while we work together towards a common goal. I hope that people are energized and excited to come to work and that we can experience that good feeling that comes with working together to be successful. And while we’re at it, we’ll develop some software that will help a business be more profitable.

While I enjoy what I do at work, to me there’s a lot more out there for me than my job. I’m just not willing to line up for 80 hour weeks, multiple side projects, and lots of weekends away from home. I have a wife and two kids and to me, those things are much more important than software development. This doesn’t mean that I’m not dedicated or that I don’t care about my craft or that I’m any less of a developer than the hero programmer working 80 hours. I just have some other priorities in life that I also find important.

Many people out there work long hours (particularly people who are single). Many doing it willingly because they enjoy doing it or they find it challenging and exciting. I don’t really have a problem with that, because we’re all entitled to spend our time doing what we want.

If you could promise me that if I worked as hard as Steve Jobs that I would have the level of success that he had, I wouldn’t take you up on it. I guess I just have a different view of what success is. I would rather be a good husband, father, and friend to other people and try to use my job and career to further those goals. I may not appear to be as “driven” or “motivated” to people in the startup world, but I beg to differ. I have a passion for what I do, and software development is just one piece of that puzzle. Go on vacation away from your computer and your job for a week and you’ll notice how it doesn’t seem so important by the end of the week.

We are fortunate as developers to work in a fun and exciting industry where we get paid to do something that many of us would enjoy doing for free. My challenge to you is to look past that and see the big picture. Some day my working days will be done and when that time comes, I have a feeling that I will care more about the friendships I made and the people I helped than I will about whether I followed the Single Responsibility Principle or how many user groups I spoke at. But that day is still a long way off, so for the time being I’m going to use all the passions and abilities that I’ve been given to make the world a better place.

UPDATE: Apparently someone else was thinking the same as me… and it’s worth the read.

5 Comments »

  1. Well said! I was recently beating myself up for missing _three_ different developer events in December that I really wanted to attend, and for not making any progress in my “for fun” projects lately.

    Then I reminded myself _why_ I was not doing those things. They all conflicted with holiday events with extended family, or with the very limited free time I have to share the magic of the Christmas season with my wife and young kids.

    Am I making a “dent in the universe”? I’m not designing the next iWhatever, nor am I making millions of dollars. But to my family, the value of the time spent with them (rather than my computer) is immeasurable. So yeah, I’m denting the universe, but I’m doing it through the way I love my wife and raise my kids. (And, hopefully, at least a _little_ denting from my coding :)

    Seth Petry-Johnson — December 2, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

  2. If you need a “Hero programmer”, you are doing it wrong. Heroes come in at the last second and do some crazy things to fix the issues and save that account that was at risk.

    Professionals plan ahead, pay attention and do things to keep the problem for even appearing in the first place. There’s no “glorious moment”, but you get more done in a year than someone who is killing themselves.

    Tito — December 2, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

  3. Thanks for writing this, Jon. I think we need more people to stand up for the importance of family and relationships.

    And Tito, you make a good point about the Hero programmer – that if you require the use of a Hero Programmer, you are not planning/managing your project well.

    I would add that for someone who is a good developer, they are likely to get better quality work done in 40 hours than they would in 80. Do you really want someone to be writing code who is half asleep most of the time? How well are they going to be able to think about code that has multiple levels of abstraction if they haven’t had enough sleep the night before? Sure they might churn out more code, but someone else is going to have to go back and fix that code later…

    If a company wants to hire someone who is willing to work 80 hours a week over me, when I’m not willing to work 80 hours a week, then I’m glad they didn’t hire me – I don’t want that job!

    Tim — December 7, 2011 @ 11:53 am

  4. I really.want to challenge your point re the Steve jobs comment, and only because I really want to understand the magnitude of what you are saying – especially for me, personally, I would like to understand your mindset on this example you presented.

    By working hard, coukd you give me some metrics? Would that be (say) an extra 30 hours a week for the remainder of your career, which (and I don’t know your age) I will assume another 25 years? And in return (as per our example) you will get the same amount of monetary success as Steve jobs after these 25 years or proportionally spread through out these 25 years? Also, are you just receiving the monetary success in your example or getting to make the same level of denting in the universe as Steve jobs did? Also, I would like us to setup a monetary value depicting the Steve jobs success example that you will receive throughout these 25 years or at the end of the 25 years, I will just call it 50 billion for examples sake?

    If you could correct the hypothetical figures, the hours a week (and how much extra it is to your current working hours per week), the number of years working these hours, the amount of money given to you and when it’s given, and if the denting of the universe is included or not… Then if you could tell us weather you would accep this or not, I would really appreciate it.

    The main reason why I’m asking is because you could do so many good things with this money, and heck, you could even figure out a way to work from home to have those little moments that you will always remember with your family and children.

    If you still don’t accept it, I understand, but am really trying to understand what it is your accepting or not accepting exactly. The more I think about it, the more profound I find this mindset – and I know many people do not think like this. However, being a programmer I always think of things in a problem solving mentality, in that you can get the money and figure out a way to have quality time with your family in our example scenario :).

    Thank you for writing.

    Erx — July 6, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

  5. Erx,

    I can’t put numbers to the things you asked because that would be using a totally different value system than what I value, which I guess was the point of my post. When I think of what Steve Jobs achieved, I would say that he created cool, innovative products and he earned a lot of money. Neither of those things are at the top of my lists of values, so I can’t say that I would be willing to work an extra x hours over x years to earn x dollars or achieve Steve Jobs’ kind of success.

    Personally, my goal is not to earn more money (although that’s always nice). I would rather work 9 months out of the year and just take less money. Maybe there’s a way to work 60 hours a week and still have quality time with your family. I value time with family and friends more than I do money, so it’s not a matter of do I have enough time with family and friends, it’s can I get more time with family and friends.

    I hope that answers the question.

    Jon Kruger — July 8, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

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