It takes quite a bit of effort to decipher my work history. I’ve worked on enough diverse software projects that I’m not a “junior” programmer; but because of the time I spent in academia doing non-tech related studies, I don’t have a substantial enough career history to justify a “senior” status. Recruiters and prospective employers usually lack the patience to make sense of it all. Though my core software development skills are solid, I’m regarded as a misfit.

Three months ago, I landed a new full-time job. The company is full of highly intelligent oddballs with convoluted, non-linear professional histories—so I feel like I fit right in. I’m liking it a lot so far, and I feel lucky to have work in such an awful economy.

It’s precisely because of my weird background that I often forget exactly how much I know, and what I’m capable of. It occurred to me recently that I think of programmers as tradesmen. Most recent college grads with CS degrees are poorly prepared for real world software development. Genuine knowledge comes from hands-on experiences as “apprentices” to seasoned programmers. If you are lucky to work with good people, what you learn is not simply a particular programming language or technology, but a paradigm of core principles that will stay with you for life.

I’ve been lucky to work under some great “masters” of the trade. More than a decade after my first “real” programming job, for example, I still use the fundamentals I learned from coworkers on that project: proper object oriented design and modeling, what abstract data types really are and how they’re useful, the extreme importance of extensibility and maintainability in an “agile” world. These things have become such a part of me that I take them for granted.

When I meet or talk to other programmers, I listen carefully to how they talk about things, what concerns they raise, how they approach problems. These are what distinguish the tradesmen-programmers from those whose aim is just to “get it to work,” and who inevitably run into all sorts of problems because of that mindset. Tradesmen-programmers have to balance the practical and theoretical aspects of software design in order to create something of quality, in all measures of that word. And this is something that can only be learned through dedication, experience, and open-mindedness, not a degree, certificate, or book.

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