Value Beyond Code

“Personally I would never want to be a member of any group where you either have to wear a hat, or you can’t wear a hat.” – George Carlin

When it comes to tech, it’s easy to fixate on the one aspect so easily associated with said tech – the underlying code that makes an application run. It is terribly easy to think that to work in tech, to matter in tech, you need to actually write code. Digging deep in the trenches of syntax and [fill in your favorite letter]DD, picking up the newest fanciest tools, participating in the latest framework battles. It’s not weird to think this, considering how much discussion there is around that one aspect.

But there are many more aspects that are necessary to thrive in tech than code, represented by different roles beyond software developer. Just as I’m writing this blog post, I find a similar sentiment by Emily Freeman on Twitter:

“Stop using the ability to code as the metric of value as an engineer. Plenty of folks don’t code because they’re experts in something else. Like infrastructure. A thing developers often don’t know much about.

If you don’t want to feel less than, stop doing it to other people.”

The ability to code is valuable in tech – but it shouldn’t be the only metric of value. Much of that required expertise cannot be covered by devs alone.

So if you want to work in tech, but not as a dev adrift in a sea of code? That is absolutely fine, and let me underline why.

Growth Begets Specialization

“I know I can’t do everything myself. So I know I specialize in my melodies and I do some of my demo work. I pass it on to my producers who are much better at the production level.” – Paul Taylor

I see many similarities with the growth of my original field, medicine. In medicine, the default role everyone thinks of is doctors. And as a doctor, it used to be possible to be a jack of all trades who knew and could do everything there was to know and do about the human body.

But medicine has changed and grown rapidly: “we” know so much more about the workings of the body, how to manipulate those workings when they’ve gone awry, what other aspects to cover beyond the purely biological. “We” know and can do so much more to influence people’s lives for the better when it comes to their health.

The problem is that that growing body of knowledge and skills is impossible to grasp in a singular role anymore. Doctors must specialize and focus on a manageable part of that knowledge/skills, and even then must keep up with ongoing growth. Doctors must look beyond and rely on other specialists to help cover the wide range of requirements to provide appropriate care. Where would doctors be without nurses, administrative personnel, managers, physiotherapists, dieticians – all these other widely diverse specialized folks who take a piece of the greater workload into their hands, collaborating to provide the best patient care together?

Specialization Begets Collaboration

“I’m a collaborator. I know I don’t know everything. I don’t want to know everything.” – Venus Williams

So, too, the tech world has grown its body of knowledge and skills beyond what is manageable for the singular software developer alone. So, too, developers need to make choices to specialize in some aspects and entrust other aspects to fellow specialists who cover what they alone cannot be expected to handle anymore. Look at the DevOps movement, where a bridge was built across two worlds previously disconnected – which now has become a world of its own with its own intricacies and challenges, requiring specialized knowledge and skills.

And it turns out, yes, many different folks in the tech community actually do wear many different hats! The Stack Overflow Developer Survey highlights several beyond “the usual” developer roles. There’s also database admin, designer, system admin, DevOps specialist, data/business analyst, data scientist, QA/test developer, engineering manager, product manager, students, educators, researchers, C-suite executives, marketing/sales – and this doesn’t cover all the roles there are to be had, like tech writer, UX specialist, customer support, and so on.

Each of these roles covers an entirely different aspect of tech – certainly not only code – with each role holding entirely valid value of their own. What good does your software application do if it doesn’t match user expectations or its UI is too clunky for users to grok, or if your company is in the red or constantly understaffed because nobody has even heard of it?

The beauty of any field like medicine or tech is that all these different specialists together make up the whole. Each role fulfills a piece of the puzzle how to provide the best patient care or how to develop the best software solution. By collaborating with other specialists, it’s okay for you alone not to know everything, because together, we do.

Find Your Hat(s)

“Try on 100 different hats if you can, until you find the one that suits you best. It’s a trial and error thing.” – Philip Treacy

Tech is growing and diversifying its requirements in a variety of fields, the knowledge and skills required to fulfill those requirements, and the roles needed to cover that wider range of knowledge and skills. Which means that to work in tech, to matter in tech, you don’t have to be a dev. There are so many more hats you can wear, try out and experiment with, to find the one that suits you best. That could certainly still be a dev hat, but also something else entirely, or even both!

When I wanted to switch careers into tech, becoming a coder was the obvious thing that came to mind. But as I learned to code, while I enjoyed exploring how tech works behind the scenes, deep down I could tell – this coding business wasn’t going to make me happy as a day-to-day job. I knew I wanted to work in tech, but ended up in circles with the seemingly impossible-to-answer question: “if not a dev, what does that even leave?” Nowadays, I’m an information analyst in healthcare IT and community enabler. And after battling Impostor Syndrome for a long time, I’m happy to fully own both hats. I’m finally done with feeling like I have to be a professional coder to be relevant in tech.

I don’t have to be, and neither do you. We matter wearing all kinds of hats. So if you’re like me, trying to code and failing to see a professional future in doing so, but still passionate about tech – don’t despair. Because there are so many more different hats to pick from. There is at least one role, one hat, that fits you best, and it doesn’t have to be about code.

Don’t let the single-hat-assumption confine you. Find the hat that fits you.

“As a singer I tried on all these hats, these voices, these clothes, and eventually out came me.” – Carly Simon