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Is Programming Enough?

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Peter Vogel          

I try to make it back to my alma mater once a year to talk to the students. They get to hear what it's like to try to earn a living in this business, and I always end up in a conversation that makes me think. This time, I ended up between two students: Sam felt that the way to success was to be more technically proficient than anyone else; Joe felt that the real path to more cash was a thorough understanding of how business works.
I sympathized with Sam. My initial career was based on being the person who knew more about the way things worked than anyone else. Though I was an application programmer, I read up on operating systems and hung out with the system guys. I had no desire to get down to the bits and bytes level, but I liked knowing what was happening under the covers. I wrote my own database and, on one occasion, my own programming language.
Not that I felt Joe was wrong. Last year I went back to school to earn my MBA -- 20 weekends a year for four years. It's a big commitment (wish me luck), but I think it'll pay off in the long run. It's really an extension of my desire to know how things work. The difference is that now I want to know how the businesses I work for operate.
In between getting out of school and going back into it, I've taken some other courses: Project Management (though it didn't help), Developing Interactive Skills, and Teaching Adults, among others. Before I went to school to become a programmer, I worked as a theater technician, set designer, production manager, and playwright. All of these experiences have helped, in one way or another, to make me a better programmer.
In the end Joe was right, though. While a programmer can make good bucks by being an expert in a hot technology, it's a tough way to make a living. Sooner or later every hot technology (even Java) becomes a commodity and the money to be made from it drops. People who follow this strategy have to move from technology to technology to stay ahead of the curve. Guess incorrectly, and you've got to scramble to catch up.
The best coders will never make as much money as the developers who can talk to business people and translate their wants and desires into plans and models. If you want to make lots of money, programming isn't enough. Fortunately, for many of us, just being able to code provides all the job satisfaction we need. I, myself, have "Born to Code" tattooed somewhere on my body . . .
In this issue, Luke Chung tells the story of his career and his company, FMS. Karen Watterson contributes an interview with the author of ELF (which she also reviews) that provides another glimpse at the kind of strategies a successful tool vendor must follow. Together, they provide two answers to the question: Is programming enough? I hope they make you think.
On another note, our "Access Answers" column returns this issue with Chris Bell on board. If you've been using the Access newsgroups, you'll already know that Chris is a regular contributor there and we were lucky enough to get him for this issue of Smart Access.



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