Developers are from Mars, Programmers are from Venus

Is “developer” just a trendier, more modern synonym for “programmer”? The way these two words are flung carelessly around the web, you’d be forgiven for thinking so. But naturally, there’s a difference.

In fact, if Mr Ed at HackNot is correct, the difference is fundamental, and boils down to a different mindset. In his article, he posits that a modern programmer loves cutting code – and only cutting code – whereas a developer is more well-rounded, and has a greater awareness of the business context in which he or she is developing.

To put it another way, a programmer is married to the technology, whereas a developer is married to the business.

This highlights a not-so-subtle divide in the IT industry, in which professionals on both sides generally fail to understand why the other side sometimes views them with such contempt. It gets at the heart of my “anti-Ruby” rant from a few weeks ago: there’s nothing wrong with Ruby per-se, but there’s everything wrong with adopting Ruby simply because it’s “cool tech”, without addressing the needs of the business.

An article posted on the Daily WTF started out as a standard exposition of a fossilized company struggling to hold onto their redundant IBM System/3 investment. To do so, they continue to write ever more convoluted pre-compiler translators and emulators to keep the original COBOL programs running. However, the posters on the WTF message forum quickly became divided as to whether this was a genuine issue or not.

After all, who’s to say that the original system really is redundant? Newer technology is available, but the old system still works, and the business customer is still perfectly happy with it. Change for the sake of newness doesn’t always make sense. (Well okay, in the WTF example, the lengths they were going to in order to retain the old codebase beggar belief; they would have been much better off starting over in a more up-to-date language with a healthy pool of developers available. But that’s an extreme [if fun] example).

To quote from Mr Ed’s article: “It is the developers that you want working in your organization. Programmers are a dime a dozen, but developers can bring real value to a business. Wise employers know how to tell the difference.”

About the Author

Matt Stephens is a senior architect, programmer and project leader based in Central London. He co-wrote Agile Development with ICONIX Process, Extreme Programming Refactored, and Use Case Driven Object Modeling with UML - Theory and Practice.