The Moderately Enthusiastic Programmer

I feel like I’m practically the poster child for the “passionate programmer”. I code for fun, always have. I’m like the stereotype of the guy who’d be programming even if it didn’t pay. I play with new programming languages for the sheer hell of it. I write and speak about the joy of coding, and try my best to pass that joy along to others as best I can.

And yet… I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the rhetoric of passion in programming.

Searching for “passionate” on the 37signals job board currently returns 11 out of 46 total listings for programmers. “Passionate about technology”. “Passionate about product development”. “Passionate developer”. “Passionate team”.

Looking up “passion” in the dictionary, the first definition I see is:

strong and barely controllable emotion.

And a large segment of the population associates the term “passion” with a man going to his death for the sake of something he believed in.

I love code. I dream of code. I enjoy code. I find writing high quality code deeply satisfying. I feel the same way about helping others write code they can feel proud of.

But do I feel “strong and barely controllable emotion” about code? Honestly? No.

I feel that way about my kids, certainly. I feel it about many of the tragedies and grave injustices that happen in the world, too. But code? I can’t truthfully compare the way I feel about software to the way I feel about my 1 year old daughter. They aren’t even in the same category.

I think some of the people writing these job ads are well-meaning. Maybe most of them. I think when they write “passionate” they mean “motivated”. No slackers. No one who is a drag on the team.

But sometimes I worry that it’s code for we want to exploit your lack of boundaries. Maybe it’s fanciful on my part, but there’s a faintly Orwellian whiff to the language of these job ads: excuse me comrade, I couldn’t help noticing that man over there is not writing his joining-the-team blog post with sincere revolutionary conviction.

In some ways this is just a microcosm of the job market as a whole. We’ve all read the advice for job seekers. A custom cover letter for every application! “I feel I would be perfect for the job of ________, despite having never heard of such a thing until this moment…

But still, I feel like there is a peculiar emphasis on passion when it comes to software jobs.

I have the great fortune of not needing a job right now. But when I look at job adverts demanding “passion” I get a little involuntary shiver. I remember needing a job. These are the kinds of job ads I’d be looking at, if I needed one again. And that makes me feel threatened, because they are looking for something I’m not sure I can give them. And if I were looking for a job right now, I’d feel pressured to fake it. Either I’d feel like an impostor, or I’d feel resentment for trying to boost my emotional commitment to a coding project to an unrealistic fever-pitch.

“Sounds like you’re just getting old, Avdi!” Except I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way about code. There’s programming—my vocation, my hobby, my ongoing obsession. And then there are the really important things in life. I’ve always felt that way.

Can I honestly call myself a “passionate programmer”? I don’t think so. “Enthusiast” seems more appropriate.

Am I just quibbling over words? Maybe. But programmers know that what we call things matters.

I worry about what the expectations these demands of “passion” are setting up. If I don’t treat the code like a lover, if I fail to put it ahead of friends and family, if I don’t hurl myself into the task like a soldier charging a machine-gun nest, am I failing to give the team my “100%”? Am I letting them down?

Even more problematic to me is the idea of being passionate about a product. I care about doing good work, certainly. I take great personal and professional pride in it. But am I really expected to be passionate about something I’ve been hired to help build? Do we fire members of construction crews if they don’t show a strong enough emotional attachment to the office complex they are building? Do we even fire architects for that offense?

I’m tremendously lucky to get to share the joy of writing code for a living. But nothing lasts forever. Maybe the programming screencast market will dry up someday. Maybe I’ll just get tired of it after a few thousand more episodes.

There is a part of me that is genuinely fearful of the effect on my future hire-ability, when I admit the following: no, I will not be passionate about your product. I will be professional about it. I may even be excited about it, if it happens to be something that I think is neat-o cool. I may have a ton of fun building it. But that doesn’t really matter. You’re not hiring a Juliet to your project’s Romeo. In the final analysis, you’re exchanging goods for services.

I’m an enthusiastic and conscientious programmer. I really hope that’s enough.

(P.S. to head off the inevitable question: no, this is not a swipe at Chad Fowler’s book The Passionate Programmer. If anything, Chad is a vocal proponent of a balanced approach to software projects)

UPDATE: This video sums it up pretty well:

UPDATE 2: I’ve posted a lengthy followup, addressing some common objections and examining the root causes of the passion focus.

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  • jonathan_wallace

    Excellent, well balanced response. I love how your explained your position, one that I share whole-heartedly.

  • mattvanhorn

    I get where you are coming from, but I would sometimes describe myself as passionate – not about the code, or the product, but about the *practice*.

    I am passionately committed to doing things the best way I know how, and improving myself through the daily application of patience and tenacity. This is mostly unrelated to any requirements of a job, however. When it comes to work, I agree that what we should look for and demand is professionalism, and not passion.

  • Ebesucher

    Dumb. Picking on the semantics of “passionate” when it’s clear what’s meant in the referred text. Use shapes a language, not a dictionary.

    • http://europa-antiqua-arca.blogspot.com/ claudivs

      How is that clear if it differs from the definition in the dictionary, the traditional usage, and the etymology of “passionate?”

    • miffy900

      I agree, but sometimes we also end up abusing words, to the point where they don’t even make any sense anymore.

      Programming is a role where the use of emotions is mostly unhelpful; it’s largely a problem solving endeavour that requires a judicious mindset and the disciplined use of reason and logic. Passion therefore, really has nothing to do with it.

    • Cameron

      @Ebesucher

      The dictionary defines the usage in different contexts, so technically you’re wrong and technically wrong is the best kind of wrong..
      But regardless, what does ‘passionate’ mean in the context of a job posting? And why should job postings deserve a separate context than the dictionary definition?

    • vexorian

      Dumb

      That’s ableist.

      Even if the job ads totally didn’t mean the actual definition and tranditional usage of passionate. That brings a new question: Why not just use the actual word that they mean to use? If they mean enthusiastic, let them use enthusiastic instead of passionate.

    • http://mwilden.blogspot.com Mark Wilden

      Use does shape language, but we all get a vote. Some of us vote for not using words to hype products or jobs.

  • Casey Banner

    Yea, this is right on the money.

  • Brian Sullivan

    Wholeheartedly agree. One minor quibble, since the post is “quibbling over words” anyway: “passion” in the context of Christ is a mistranslation of the Latin “passionem”, referring to suffering, not an intense emotion.

    • http://avdi.org Avdi Grimm

      It has always amused me how much of theology is informed by straight-up bad translations :-)

      • http://decomplecting.org/ Jason Lewis

        No, “passion” in the context of “the passion of Christ” is using the correct Latin… actually, passionem is the middle Latin used in later editions of the Vulgate, the term goes back to the old Latin patio, which only denoted suffering with no other connotations.

  • http://www.accidentalhacker.com/ Rob Sobers

    I think you’re being way too pedantic. It’s just a word. Literally no one ever who has written “passion” in a programming job description has demanded an uncontrollable, foaming-at-the-mouth desire to to work on their project lest ye be fired at once.

    Is there a specific real world example which prompted this essay, Avdi?

    • http://newstechnica.com David Gerard

      What it means in job ads is “we are writing job descriptions without the awareness that our words select for good liars.”

      • http://www.accidentalhacker.com/ Rob Sobers

        Man, you guys are cynical. :-)

        When I say, “I’m looking for someone passionate.” I mean that I want someone who genuinely cares about doing a great job and has a sense of personal pride in their work. They ship quality work because they want to. That’s really it. No hidden meaning. No malice.

        • http://newstechnica.com David Gerard

          I don’t doubt it :-) I know what you mean – you want someone who seriously loves this stuff, and that’s completely legitimate.

          But I do think the word “passionate” in job ads has been abused to the point of meaninglessness, by bad job ads and (per the David Mitchell video) bad marketing. In a tight market, most people just want a job; thus, ads saying “passionate” will select for people who can present a “passionate”-looking face.

          • http://www.accidentalhacker.com/ Rob Sobers

            I totally see your point. I think we’re just quibbling about subtle differences in meaning, which is why I didn’t really get why Avdi wrote the essay the way he did.

            I think we should call out the shitty people who write job ads to entrap or take advantage of people. Picking apart the word “passion” is a foolish thing IMO since people with good intentions will use it, too.

          • http://newstechnica.com David Gerard

            Yeah :-) In recruiting (I’m a senior sysadmin and have occasional cause to interview people for such a role), I have consciously avoided such language – it just asks for people who are all hat and no cattle. I’ve seen too many golden CVs from people I *know* are bozos. Sysadmins don’t quite do that sort of enthusiasm, but there is a particular attitude that will only come out in the interview, or fail to come out.

            Recruiting is damn hard from both sides, as there is so much incentive for deceptive signaling in all directions that it just makes it harder for the good workers and good jobs to meet. Ah well.

          • http://www.accidentalhacker.com/ Rob Sobers

            This is why I always try extremely hard to hire from within the network of people I know and trust.

          • The Werewolf

            And thus inculcate inbreeding.

          • http://mwilden.blogspot.com Mark Wilden

            How’s about we just use words for what they mean? The difference between the feeling Avdi (and I) have for our children and the feeling we have for our jobs is not a “subtle difference in meaning”. May I ask if you’re a recruiter?

        • missdk

          “That’s really it.” Cool story. That doesn’t address the point here about how such words are perceived by devs and what meaning they instill in our community.

          • http://www.accidentalhacker.com/ Rob Sobers

            “…how such words are perceived by devs and what meaning they instill in our community.”

            Really? I’ve been a programmer for 20 years and I’ve never seen a fellow developer get worked up about words like “passion.”

          • missdk

            Are you calling on your anecdotal frequency of discussions on a certain topic as proof that words have no meaning? I don’t think that’s a very good basis to come to the conclusion that “it’s just a word.” Seems like an inaccurate thing to say in any situation as ALL words have context. How bout some research instead. Found this one in 2 minutes of google searching – http://www.fortefoundation.org/site/DocServer/gendered_wording_JPSP.pdf?docID=16121

            btw I’ve been a programmer for only 5 years and have been having this conversation continuously. So… I don’t know what to tell you about your anecdote. Maybe no one had the discussion with you because when someone did, you said they were being pedantic and blew off their point as you did here.

          • http://www.accidentalhacker.com/ Rob Sobers

            I don’t know. I’m honestly not trying to be dismissive. Maybe I just have thicker skin than the people you’re continuously talking to that are up in arms about words job ads. To me it’s a crazy thing to worry about.

          • missdk

            I don’t think it’s thicker skin, I think it’s simply not affected you. If the word “passion” or masculine language or words like “code ninja” do not affect you, that’s great. But research and this thread of comments show it that it does to other people. Discussing that is not getting “up in arms, and it’s not crazy to deconstruct unproductive language that alienates people. To me it’s crazy not to.

          • http://www.accidentalhacker.com/ Rob Sobers

            OK, now you’re getting into different territory IMO. Anything (words, actions, etc.) that *alienate* a class of people should certainly be scrutinized and discussed. Code ninja–a ridiculous term–included.

            I really don’t think you can lump our quibbles about the word “passion”–which is the only word I’m talking about here–in with the diversity in tech issue.

          • Lucidz

            The type of verbiage a company uses in its posting is indicative of the environment they are hiring you into. The same position will be vastly different based on the environment. A data mining applications developer will likely have very different deliverables and expectations at a high end advertising company vs a game company vs bloomberg. The little hints in the posting is not a prerequisite of any approach to development, but an idea of the kind of personality they are hiring for. IMO.

          • http://www.accidentalhacker.com/ Rob Sobers

            I tend to agree. If you look at a developer job posting at a company that typically doesn’t value developers (think a big drug or oil company) you’ll see stark differences than, say, a Foursquare dev job posting.

            But to say that the word “passion” indicates a bad work environment is crazy!

            I worked for Fog Creek Software for 2 years and its a company that is built in every way possible to provide the best possible work environment for software developers. And what does the founder, Joel Spolsky, say he looks for in candidates?

            “Passion. We look for evidence that the applicant is passionate about computers and really loves programming.”

            http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/SortingResumes.html

            Why are we trying to lump “passion” in with stupid terms like “code ninja” and “rockstar”?

          • Lucidz

            I still feel like using the term “passionate” is a really good indicator of the type of environment, even if its accidental. Case in point a few years back I applied for a job that was looking a passionate developer. This was for designing those horrible surveys that preclude you cashing in a coupon or earning like 1 tenth of a cent to get a free “50th subscription to vibe magazine” or what not.

            Like, how on earth is someone going to be passionate about ASP form validation? That was a sign to me, they took what they did too seriously and wanted someone who would lie about their interests to get the job. Suffice it to say, I took a much more fun job instead.

            As for a bad work environment, I have seen some postings which quite clearly state things like “fast paced environment” and “mission critical functions” and that always leads me to try to get a good lay of the land in the offices to see how it really translates.

          • missdk

            Related: here’s a great video on how language and visualization affect diversity in tech. http://vimeo.com/channels/372194/46501265

          • http://mwilden.blogspot.com Mark Wilden

            It sounds like you have strong feelings on the subject. I would call the freedom to use the word “passion” for something different than it means a crazy thing to worry about. Get a dictionary and everyone’s happy.

        • AgFox

          Rob, sorry I’m late to the discussion, but if that’s what you mean then why not stipulate those requirements rather than use ‘passionate’? I suspect job seekers & employers would prefer more precise information during the recruitment process.

  • Parnell Springmeyer

    The fundamental issue you’re getting at, I think, has less to do with what’s wrong with the companies recruiting and more to do with the programmers that are in our market.

    “Rock star”, “passionate”, “superman”, all of those loaded words are used by non-technical people, and occasionally by technical people, because they don’t exactly know how to qualify a developer as an accountable programmer. Is this person going to do their best for me? Will this person take responsibility for the mistakes they make? Will this person write software that serves the businesses needs?

    I’m a programmer too and a business owner, I now have seen both sides of the coin and I gotta say, there’s a huge communication problem. Programmers are slowly being elevated in their status as key components to the success of a business without really knowing it (except for great salaries) and without really knowing what the responsibilities are.

    Our entire industry is moving away from playful building to engineered constructions that have a noticeable impact on the life of a business.

    It’s not about passion. It’s about accountability and who is the person responsible for {working | non-working} software and are they here to fix it, maintain it, and improve it.

    • omouse

      Professionalism isn’t something that coders are being trained in at all.

  • Jorge

    “But sometimes I worry that it’s code for we want to exploit your lack of boundaries”

    You are right, it is code for it. But they know that you can put your boundaries, so it is just setting a morally justifiable starting point. You can push back, it is expected.

  • eoy

    It’s quite sad in a way, but I dare say I feel passionate about development. There’s just this kick you get out of building something from scratch that makes it all worth it :)

  • Andrea Schiavini

    I think the whole thing depends on what are you working for. I feel “enthusiastic” and “passionate” when I am working on a project that will make someone’s life better, and if I was an entrepreneur and I had the idea for such a project, I would search for passionate developers too. Of course, when the only outcome in your work is money (no matter if for you or for who’s hiring you), your passion could come to an end. Code – and code quality – are just my “tools” to do my job, which I love to do, but the “mission” is not to write good code. The mission is to make this world a better place to live in, for you and for people you love.

  • Stevo

    Yes, this word is way overused in the software industry. But who cares what those job postings say, most of them are written by fools.

  • Steven Hansen

    Thank you, that needed to be said!

  • sharnel

    I think this is a wholly reasonable concern; even if employers aren’t operating on a strict dictionary definition of “passionate”, the word wasn’t chosen accidentally. I think it’s partly an effort to be part of the much-hyped “startup culture”. Steve Jobs was probably passionate about Apple. He was obsessive, angry, and manipulative in his efforts to protect a business he arguably cared more about than anything else in his life. That’s passion, and a number of other notable founders have been similar.

    So, “passion” is really what some employers are hoping for. Some just got on the bandwagon, but some are looking for the candidate who won’t say a word about needless crunch time, because they want the perfect product. The candidate who will relocate at a moment’s notice because that’s where the team is going. The candidate who won’t say no. Passion for the product is profitable, but not healthy, and that’s why it’s worth worrying about.

    • simone bernacchia

      Add people that in order to keep the passion and the company alive wil accept pay cuts and insurance removal – at the end is more of the same: willing eager slaves – is however illegal wishing one for wife :(

  • mdeboard

    Passion is suffering for love. That describes the passion of Christ, it also describes some entrepreneurs.

  • kindjar

    I imagine it’s hyperbole, but it’s actually hard to be sure, because some people do seem pretty passionate about things I can’t imagine people actually being passionate about. So my brain doesn’t automatically assume it’s hyperbole, and instead, I wonder if they really expect candidates to be passionate, or if they are just doing a bad job of communicating. Either way, it is generally a negative indicator for me.

    • Bubba

      I used to get upset about the word, but then I realized, like you, it’s just hyperbole much of the time, so it doesn’t bother me any more. They just want someone that cares, that’s all.

      On the other hand, I think I did not get a job once because I did not drink the cool-aid. They said I did not seem very enthusiastic about their product. Honestly, I liked the product, was intellectually fascinated by it, and really wanted to start working on it. (When I’m fascinated by something, I tend to get very still and quiet). Maybe I should have said “Woo-hooo!! This is sick! High-fives!!!!”, then I could have given everyone a high-five while dancing a jig. Oh well, their loss.

  • q845712

    +1 – thanks for saying this.

  • Melissa

    I think the overemphasis on passion scares a lot of women (and other people) away from tech careers. The idea that you need to be passionate about it to do it excludes people who might just find it a satisfying job. I think that’s why most of my female co-workers in tech are from foreign countries where they are encouraged to choose careers based on factors other than passion.

    • Noel Rappin

      See also: http://www.noelrappin.com/railsrx/2014/1/31/experts-passion-and-pinpoint-control — based on my own experience and also what I’ve been told by younger programmers, especially younger woman programmers.

    • http://decomplecting.org/ Jason Lewis

      It’s interesting, I’m all for satisfying jobs (whatever they may be), but the idea of “just a satisfying job” seems to me to apply more to commodity labor than to professional work (please see this post as applied to software). I doubt many doctors, lawyers, or teachers see it as “just a satisfying job.”

      I daresay I never want to be operated on or represented in court by anyone with that outlook. I think I might have been taught by a few, but that’s neither here nor there.

      We do need to change the language around this; at the same time, maybe the exclusion of people just looking for “a satisfying job” is deliberate, and not in all cases a bad thing (thinking of surgeons again, but also software).

      There are plenty of places in enterprise IT for commodity programmers who can write Java boilerplate or UML. Once we figure out what we actually mean by “passion,” we can screen on the proper variable quality.

      • Melissa

        Do you know any doctors or lawyers? It varies with them, as it varies with all jobs. And whether or not job performance has to do with “passion” seems like an unproven assumption.

        I would say the work I do pleases the people I do it for, I am dedicated to high quality, and I’m proud of it. I read about it in my spare time and do some non-work related tech stuff. But it is not my passion. My passions are my friends, family, and other hobbies I have. And that makes work-life balance a huge priority for me.

        I get the impression that often “passion” is desired because they know these are the people who will be most likely to discard their free time in the interest of work. They will not ask for overtime or comp time either. But I think it often backfires because a lot of these people seem willing to discard their free time because it’s low quality. They don’t have friends, family, or other hobbies. They are unbalanced and unpleasant to work with. They alienate product owners and communicate poorly. They have serious health issues from subsisting on junk and not sleeping well. Just as development reaches its crescendo, they end up burning out. There is a reason they call the suffering and death of Jesus, the “passion.”

        But that’s just founded on anecdotes. As is the contention that “passion” is something good for someone working in tech.

        • http://decomplecting.org/ Jason Lewis

          Sorry, thread-awareness fail on my part… I made that comment still thinking of the previous (but lower on page) comment I had just made.

          Passion is a terrible word for a quality that probably is desirable, but in HR-speak, yeah, exactly what you said. Code for “I want to hire someone with no sense of work/life balance who will make me rich while burning himself/herself out.”

    • missdk

      Spot on. I was very surprised when I went to school for CS and met almost no men “passionate” about coding and absolutely stunned when I found quite a few who didn’t like to code at all. I thought you had to eat sleep and dream in code to become a software engineer.
      This expectation for passion does not exist for any field of study or business, and this creates a very high hurdle for entering tech ESPECIALLY for marginalized groups that do no have the societal support and mentors to back them up.

  • James O’Neill

    Prior to getting into programming I’d always felt a nagging sense of guilt that my lack of passion for the jobs I did was a problem, in fact with the benefit of hindsight the idea that one should be passionate about one’s occupation proved paralysing for me as I kept asking myself what I was passionate about and failing to find an answer and not what I was interested in or what I could potentially prove good at.

    As it turns out programming was what liberated me from that, as it was the first thing I did where I felt like being interested was enough. I like the experience of solving a problem or finding a new way of doing something but I don’t feel like it ought to define my whole life.

  • Michael Ries

    When I was interviewing for my current job I was asked by the head of tech and the CEO about whether I felt passionate about the product they were building. My honest answer was that I have never felt passionately about what I am building. I feel passionate about _becoming a great engineer_ and I feel passionate about the team of people I work with. Those are things that I go to sleep thinking about at night, but the product I am working on right now has never been something I’m passionate about.

    Both of them agreed with the sentiment, but I think it was unfortunate that during those interviews I felt uncomfortable “admitting” that I was not passionate about what the company was building.

  • sebrose

    I’m with you and David Mitchell on this one. I did a lightning keynote at ACCU a couple of years ago and then turned it into an “Are You Passionate?” pecha kucha at XP2013 last year. No videos, but here’s the slide deck: http://www.slideshare.net/sebrose/are-you-passionate-pecha-kucha

  • oborseth

    You hit the nail on the head. I’m in the same position as you are of not needing a job and feel the same way when I see those ads. I’m one of the hardest most loyal workers I know, but passionate about programming? No, not really; just good at it.

  • Hal Helms

    Thank you for this blog post that display those rarest of qualities: good sense and honesty.

  • Chuck Holt

    Oh, holy crap, no! The overuse of the word “passion” in any business setting absolutely does not need to come back from the dead. A good chunk of the speed bumps I hit in my attempt at an IT career in the 90s were often connected to some empty accusation that I wasn’t emoting enough while I worked. I did just fine, in terms of performance and execution, if I was allowed to do my work in the role of a quiet internalizer, but I apparently would have been better off professionally and financially if I’d just had a few more displays of emotion. And I mean ANY emotion, even if it meant pounding the desk, shouting “I give up” and announcing that I was going out for a three beer lunch. But that wasn’t my act.

    I wonder how this philosophy would be applied to other professions. Maybe…

    “Hi — uh, yeah — so I see from the stats here that you rushed for 250 yards in the game yesterday. Those are fair numbers, but I’m not convinced that you’re one hundred percent emotionally invested in your role. … No, don’t give me that look. And I heard what you said about Bill. You like to make these accusations that he ignores his assignments to go over and punch his own teammates in the middle of a play during the games, but, from my perspective, you can see that he’s really passionate about what he does. …”

    OK, enough of my complaining. (Trust me, I could complain more.) What’s important is that we have to re-kill this philosophy connected to the misuse of the word “passion.” We have to find which grave it dug itself out of, and force it back underground.

    I’m not sure — will holy water or fire be a more effective tool in this case? Discuss.

    • Derek Redfern

      Fire. Definitely fire.

  • Becca Feiner

    Around here getting too passionate with the servers would probably make HR nervous…

  • Mark

    As a serial company founder, entrepreneur, and developer/architect, I can tell you that what it takes to succeed requires more than “a professional attitude” towards the product you are working on.

    Not “Passionate”? You’re the guy that gets hired AFTER we cash out.

    I can find and hire any number of “professional consultants” who are competent developers but only tied to a pay check.

    Those who are *personally* invested will get my personal investment in making sure they are taken care of, considered, valued, promoted, treated with respect and afforded every opportunity I can give them.

    Don’t like it? Don’t do it, stay a “work for wage” guy.

    When you cite the construction industry, you’re missing the point. In construction as with EVERYTHING else, there are people who care and people who don’t.

    The necessity of the maturation of the industry provides a place in the market space for those who dont care. Those positions don’t lead to fame, riches, or personal connections that will last a lifetime.

    How you live your life is your own choice, but don’t slam on people who aspire to more.

    • omouse

      So you’re saying he’s the guy that gets paid $100k for fixing the mess that allowed you to cash out in the first place?

  • http://decomplecting.org/ Jason Lewis

    I doubt I would ever apply for a job that used “passion” or any derivation thereof in the job description. That being said, I thing Chad’s use of the word in his book is an attempt to fuzzy-match a concept that’s hard to pinpoint. I use the same word (referencing the book) in this post, and although I agree it’s the wrong word, I’m hard pressed to think of the right one.

    I described an encounter in that post with a programmer who lacked passion, enthusiasm, probably even professionalism. But there’s this hard to define quality that makes for what some might call a “true hacker,” and I think it’s at some intersection of passion, excitement, deep knowledge, and obsession.

    Since we seem to agree that “passion” is the wrong word, yet I’m asserting there’s a quality we’re using it to describe, let’s call it “quux,” for the sake of discussion.

    Personally, I would never want to hire someone who had more quux about a product than his or her own family. Lack of work/life balance just leads to burnout, no matter how much quux you have. But I also wouldn’t want to work with someone who, e.g., comes in pumped after every Ravens victory but never runs into the office almost speechless over that cool thing they read on HN this morning.

    (Sports fans, don’t take offense. You should see me when Manchester United win a match in the FA Cup Finals)

    Passion is a horribly abused term, but this “quux” is something that I look for in people, not only in programming (although especially in programming), but in many areas of life… Maybe the word for the person, if not the quality, is otaku. It’s loosely translated as “geek,” but really means “one who has obsessive interests.”

    I rail against the “9 to 5 coder”, but I’m not saying I want anyone to put in 70 hours a week on a product. I’m interested in the people who work on a product from 9 to 5 (or whatever), go home, have dinner with the fam (or friends, whatever), then pick a new language to play with, or hack on a hobby project, or learn something for the hell of it, out of love for Comrade Stalin their craft.

    Maybe we don’t need “quux.” Maybe craftsmanship is enough to connote the attitude I’m describing here… and since this is a really long comment, maybe I need to write a follow up to this and my above-cited post.

  • Mark Sobkowicz

    I’m a hobbyist programmer and a professional teacher. And I’m passionate about teaching. On the weekends and in the summer, I think a lot about my practice, how to learn from my mistakes. Doesn’t mean I take time away from my family, or give up my life for it – but I often find my self thinking about my teaching – planning what I’ll do next, even when I’m not at work. When we’re hiring someone, I’m looking for evidence of that kind of thoughtfulness. Not for someone who will stay at work until 10pm every night – but someone who is unabashedly interested in the work, to the point where they integrate it into their whole life. Maybe there is a better word than passionate. You mentioned exchanging services for goods, and I think thats what contractors do. I want more than your services. I want your full attention, your commitment, and yes, some emotional involvement, if not the full extent of your passion.

  • Lauren Shepard

    well written! i sometimes wonder about people who are ‘passionate’ about, say, gastroenterology or gynecology. kind of creepy, if you ask me! where do you go from ‘passionate’? obsessive? pathological? sounds a bit like hysteria. maybe it’s religious suffering, as was suggested!

  • angel brown

    This is something I’ve been thinking about not just in relation to job ads, but community-wide. I feel like there may be a bit of a competition among some to see who can be the most “passionate”, that is, who lives and breathes code most fervently, sometimes even at the expense of other life concerns and needs. How often have you heard “I totally forgot to sleep or eat because I was just so obsessed with fixing this bug.” Of course, many of us have been there, but I don’t feel that it’s a healthy thing to celebrate or brag about. I would much prefer to celebrate a coworker saying something like “I worked on this problem all day and wanted to keep going, but I cut myself off at 6pm so that I could go for a run/enjoy dinner with my family/go see a movie. I value the happiness and health of my coworkers far more than his or her awesome code.

  • TheOtherZach

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Matt Jones

    I’ve always assumed that “passion” was mostly a PR-safe way of saying “must give a f**k”, but some of the other comments make it pretty clear that there *are* folks who only consider a dev “passionate” if they don’t have any boundaries.

    Kinda sad, as we need *more* of the first kind…

  • Ethan Garofolo

    I saw a job description that wanted someone who was passionate about “full-stack web development.” You can get passionate about specific things, but to be passionate about something that broad robs the word “passionate” of any meaning it once had.

  • Devil’s Advocate

    This seems like a borderline-autistic failure at pragmatic speech. The word passionate obviously meant as an antonym to apathetic in this context. If you’re capable of having an even remotely heated discussion about the merits of your favorite language, platform, etc. you can call that passion. You care. That’s all it means. It’s something you do because you *enjoy* it, not merely because you have to.

    Enjoyment is an emotion. That rush you feel when you get an elegant solution to a complicated solution working, or when you finally track down the source of that bug — that feeling of being slightly addicted when you’re learning something. That’s all passion means. If you could give two fucks about programming, find it to be a chore, and are doing it just because you heard it’s a good profession so you picked a CS major, then you’re going to lack that passion, that “bug”, that makes it possible to tolerate the frustrating/tedious/political/annoying parts of the profession.

  • annmariastat

    I love my work. Am I “passionate” about coding in the same way I am about my children? Hell, no! I’d step in front of a bullet for any one of my four kids, whereas if you threatened to shoot me if I used jQuery instead of writing everything in plain javascript, well, .js it is ! Yes, I do far more work than I get paid for – BUT I’m co-founder of this company. I completely agree that “passionate” is often a euphemism for “we’d like you to work far more hours than we are willing to pay you for”.

  • david karapetyan

    I think you’re taking those job descriptions a little too seriously. 90% of that boilerplate doesn’t even matter. More than half the time the job description that gets me in the door is not even close to what I end up doing. You have to remember that these job posts are not written by programmers. They are written by someone in HR who has no idea what any of it means other than they took a seminar at some point and were told what buzzwords to include in a job description.

  • minus Seven

    By the term “Passionate” I think the job adverts means something they love doing and won’t be uncomfortable doing it when given.

  • hobgoblin11

    Oddd. I havnt met too many doctors who perform surgery in their spare time “just for the fun of it” and no one is questioning their commitment. So if Im not some nerd wearing a macaroni and cheese stained Quake t-shirt coding in my moms basement every night Im not good enough? No thanks, Ill take someone who is a little more well balanced in their life.

  • E__G

    Really excellent, I am glad this conversation is starting up (again) among prominent programmers. Let’s call this ‘passion’ what it is: cover for exploitation, and sexism.

  • Craig Buchek

    I think the fact that programming is your “obsession” is close enough to what they’re looking for. To me, those are fairly synonymous. But I do agree that being professional is more important.

    Besides, I don’t think you’ll really have much need for traditional job-hunting in the future. You’ve already made so many connections in the community that your next job will present itself to you when you need it to. Just ask David Brady.

  • julia_disqus

    Also, words used in job descriptions are sometimes “anxious”, “you can’t sleep at night” and such. If you didn’t know you were reading a job description, you would’ve thought it was about a medical condition. As a person who sometimes has trouble sleeping, I find it really funny, and sad. Somebody who writes those job descriptions obviously doesn’t have any health problems, or commitments in life other then coding.