Passion. Passionate. Passionately.

02 February 2007

As it happens, the question of passion came up in a few conversations I've had of late. Not passion in a sexual sense — sorry, everyone, this isn't that kind of blog! — but in the sense of an intense enthusiasm for something you're producing.

I think that, in order to be successful at software development, you have to be passionate about it. You have to be passionate about the software you're writing and passionate about the problem you are solving with this software; or, at the very least, passionate about the solution to that problem. Jeff Atwood, in Coding Horror, summed it up like this when he was talking about how to become a better programmer:

Passion for coding is a wonderful thing. But it's all too easy to mindlessly, reflexively entrench yourself deeper and deeper into a skill that you've already proven yourself more than capable at many times over. To truly become a better programmer, you have to cultivate passion for everything else that goes on around the programming. [...] The more things you are interested in, the better your work will be.

If you are producing something for which you have no passion then that something just won't be as good as it could be.

A friend of mine has been fighting an uphill battle trying to get her vision of the front-end of this older, large, complex application approved and staffed. To that end she and a small team have produced a prototype, and its implementation hit all the good practices: it was developed in an agile manner (this in a waterfall company), it's loosely coupled, it's functionally layered, it updates in real-time, it has full unit tests, etc.

But it's been a struggle, not only deflecting roadblocks from upper management and from peers, but also from her own team who've wanted to take shortcuts. She succeeded in the end, not only through the extremely well-designed and functional prototype (after a demo, the sales people wanted it NOW dammit!), but also because of her passion for what she and her team were doing. She refused to back down, believing intensely in what they were doing, and instead fought for what she thought was right. It was her passion that made her succeed: after so many so-so projects at the company, this ability to show such intense enthusiasm affected the outcome on its own. No one wanted to stand in her way.

Passion convinces people. Passion makes you an evangelist. Passion brings people round to your side. Obviously there must be something concrete there as well (having passion for vaporware won't win you many friends), but passion is infectious.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been helping a local high school prepare for a competition known as Mock Trial. Each school that participates puts forward a team to argue a fictitious case in front of a judge and jury, with another team opposing them. So, the team divides up into two parts: for the plaintiff and for the defense. Each side has its witnesses, three or four, say. In the competition the plaintiff team for one school will be married up to the defense team from another, and they fight it out in a mock trial. They get points for opening and closing arguments, for the believability of the witnesses, for counsel's objections, etc. After a few regional rounds, there's a state competition, and after that the winning school from the state goes forward to the national competition (which is in Texas this year). Great fun.

I've been helping as a coach to teach the kids acting techniques to get their viewpoint across better and more forcefully. Tonight was the final rehearsal (the regionals start tomorrow afternoon), and so I gave a quick final bit of advice. And it was: be passionate. I said that, in order to win, not only do you have to be technically good and have all the facts memorized, but you must be passionate about what you're doing. You have to believe in what you're saying, and your passion will help convince the judge and jury. Dull recitation of previously learned lines won't cut it.

A company like ours can suffer from a lack of passion. Some of the products, or new functionality, can come across as so-so, not because they're crappy or boring or me-too but because they have no champion who believes in them; who is passionate about them; who is willing to blog and talk about them.

I was talking to Dustin Campbell from our IDE productivity team today about the issues we've encountered in producing our ASP.NET refactoring product. I put it to him, and he agreed, that the product only started gaining traction and becoming more stable and higher quality when people outside the team started using it and testing it and getting passionate about it. It's weird really: of all the teams in Developer Express, I would rate the IDE productivity team as possibly being the most passionate about their product, but even they can get jaded about some functionality that's outside their normal day-to-day work (they don't use ASP.NET at all).

This conversation with Dustin this morning made me step back a bit, and do some thinking. The employees at Developer Express are, by and large, very passionate about the products and proud of the company and what it does. I think that passion comes across very well to the outside world. But there are gaps, sometimes large gaps. I don't think we ("The Management") can instill passion in someone for something they're not interested in, but I think we can encourage and cultivate the passion that's perhaps simmering under the surface. I believe that if we do and we're successful at it, our products will become better and more attractive. (Ah ha, the sexual theme again!)

So, watch out, world. We've got fuses and we're going to light them!

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