Bike courierI gave a presentation at Boulder.rb last night about my experience being the technical co-founder of a startup for two years. After the presentation, someone asked a really interesting question. Between working as a solo co-founder of a startup or working in a larger team at an established company, which experience makes you a better developer?

First, a digression. I often commute around town by bike. There are many benefits to doing so, but one of the ones I think about a lot is being on a bike gives you the ability to move through streets more freely. Specifically, you can switch between acting like a car (riding on the road) and acting like a pedestrian (riding on the sidewalk). Used judiciously, this ability can get you places faster than either (hence, bike messengers).

In my mind, a true developer is like that. They can bounce between the world of software (and across the domains within it) and the world of business to solve problems in an efficient manner.

Back to the question at hand. I think that the answer is based on what you mean by better. Are you looking to gain:

  • customer empathy
  • ability to get stuff done through barriers of ignorance and resource constraint
  • a wide set of experience across a lot of different software related domains (security, operations, ux, data modelling, requirements gathering, planning, bug fixing, etc)

If getting these skills make you into the better kind of developer you want to be, you will be well served by being a technical co-founder or founding engineer (more thoughts about the distinction here).

If on the other hand, you are looking for:

  • deep knowledge of a smaller subset of the software world
  • the ability to design software for long term maintainability and performance
  • experience working with a team of stakeholders, each with a different perspective on the problem you are solving

then you are seeking a place on a team, with process, code reviews, conference attendance and free snacks (most likely).

Who is a better developer? The person with experience working with (possibly leading) a team and deep knowledge of a subset of technology? Or the person who can be a jack of all trades and take a product from an idea to something customers will pay for?

I’m going to leave you with the canonical consultant’s answer: “It depends.” The former I’d call an expert programmer and the latter a true developer. They are both extremely valuable, but are good in different companies situations.

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