No Ninjas!

Ninja ProgrammerMany of us have seen them: The job posts claiming to be seeking a “Ninja Programmer.”

I presume that these are companies that are:

  1. Looking for a well-versed candidate with diverse skills and the ability to tackle any project.
  2. A candidate that will find more value in the way he/she is perceived than salary. (Reading between the lines: “We can’t pay you much, but we will appreciate you a lot!”) This may not always be the case, but there there often seems to be a hint of this in “Ninja” job descriptions.

The second point is based on other verbiage I have seen alongside such job posts. Things such as “Do you find more value in what you get to do each day than anything else?” Sure, I find value in the more exciting aspects of a role–The opportunity to learn new things, set direction, and get things done. Of course! I also find value in money. Let’s be honest here.

Sometimes the word Ninja is replaced by other crafty (or not-so-crafty) buzzwords: Rock Star, Guru, Genius, Superstar. It doesn’t take much insight to recognize the aim of such verbiage: Flattery.

I’m sure that any company using such lingo in a job description is sincere in the desire to find a candidate who is very good–one who will be able to complete sizable, complex tasks. Naturally! I also think that a single superb programmer can often achieve the work of three, perhaps four or even five, average programmers. I’m fascinated by some of the legendary programmers out there: People like Linus Torvalds and James Gosling. But even the most famous programmers rely on a tremendous and ever-growing amount of community insight and preexisting work. (By the way, there is a video from a Google I/O Conference, The Myth of the Genius Programmer, that addresses this subject very well.)

BloodsportI’ve worked with a few “Ninja Programmers” over the years. The term is highly relative. I’ve had positions where I may have been considered the Ninja. I’ve had other positions where any Ninja-like self satisfaction was as elusive as the stealth and cunning of a Ninja portrayed in a 1980s movie.

How did this lingo come about? Those of us in the business of writing software often have a few other desires. I know I do. Anyone who grew up in the 80s dreams of being a Rock Star, Ninja, or at least Frank Dux. The buzzword job titles are a way of making a job that might be very difficult, taxing, and demanding of time and talent sound appealing. I may have to work 100 hours a week, but at least I’ll finally be a Ninja!

It’s no different than job descriptions that contain the infamous words, “We work hard and play hard!” What does play hard even mean? It sounds like something that might involve torn ligaments.

The point of this post isn’t to seem cynical (although it might). The point is this: Software Developers, Architects, Engineers, whatever you call them, aren’t some strange group of people that have to be wooed or tricked into accepting a position. We’re grown adults. There are certainly great Software Engineers out there. But they aren’t stealthy, and they don’t hide in trees or karate chop bad guys.

I’ve worked with some brilliant software folks over the years. I’ve worked with some very poor ones as well. Those times in my career where I’ve found myself the lone “Ninja” of the team have been among the most floundering times of my career. It is difficult to teach oneself new things in a vacuum. I’ve found that it is best to be on a team with lots of other “smart folks”–people from whom you can learn, and people who will add checks and balances. That so-called Ninja–The lone genius that a company relies on for all software needs–is going to cause a few problems.

A few that I can think of right away:

  1. A lone programmer–the company “genius”–will soon face burnout. No matter how much the individual loves writing software, one can only be stretched so far. This highly talented individual has all sorts of opportunities coming his or her way. It won’t be long before such a talented person is offered a job making more money and working fewer hours. What happens when the single guru leaves the company?
  2. The lone programmer may not play nice as the company grows. It can be difficult to let others touch your baby. When you’ve written thousands of lines of code and a new team member comes along and starts mucking with it, there can be problems. I’ve been the new guy, pestering the old guy, and messing around with legacy code, much of it poorly documented. I’ve also been the guy on the other side, a bit perturbed when someone dare say that my code might be better ifBe gone, you and your new design pattern!
  3. Along with number 2, any programmer with enough of an ego to allow himself or herself to be labelled the company’s Ninja, is likely to have an ego that does not lend itself well to “playing nice with others.” I have to confess once again to having been on both sides of this. It feels great to be in a position where you are thought of as being “the smart guy.” Although burdensome, it feels good to be trusted with the complexities of software that nobody else understands. It also leads to a certain feeling over ownership of code, and heavy reliance on a single individual.
  4. When trusting that lone smart guy/gal with all of the code, a determination has been made: There will be no collaboration–no merging of ideas–no team to challenge each other, from within, to do better. It’s the sharing of backgrounds and experience that leads to the best software design, and I believe this is true no matter how talented one programmer happens to be.

I’m sure there is more that could be added to this list. These are just a few quick thoughts on the matter. While being a Rock Star might not be all that bad, I don’t want to be a Ninja. Sometimes Ninjas get blow-darts stuck in their necks. Sometimes they get beat up by Bruce Lee.


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