Skip to content

Ugly duckling developer


I thought I was an unseen developer

Scott Hanselman has written about people like me in Dark Matter Developers: The Unseen 99%:

There is another kind of developer than the ones we meet all the time. We call them Dark Matter Developers. They don't read a lot of blogs, they never write blogs, they don't go to user groups, they don't tweet or facebook, and you don't often see them at large conferences. Where are these dark matter developers online?

I don't think I was a true dark matter developer. I think my story is more of an Ugly Duckling story? Let me give you some background.

I previously worked as a programmer at my local municipality, which is a fancy way of saying that I was the "web guy" at my City Hall. I got to work with some pretty gnarly legacy technology. I enjoyed reading books like Working Effectively with Legacy Code. I worked with databases and technologies that were older than me.

This meant that my work wasn't visible. A lot of my projects were commited into internal source control and the applications were only accessible to staff. I didn't get to build up a portfolio of stuff I worked on.

However, outside of work, I passively consumed a lot of technology content. I watched conference videos online. I followed tons of developers on social media. I read a lot of blogs and tried to learn as much as I could. I played around with new technologies just to get comfortable with them.

This lead to a weird dichotomy of production and consumption of tech content. I was creating things that weren't exciting and didn't seem worth sharing. However, I was reading lots about technologies and developers that were exciting and I felt passionate about. I was able to consume content, but not able to participate and create content.

My entire team was definitely comprised of "dark matter" developers, but I felt out of place. I could suggest ways to improve technologies or processes, but it wasn't where they wanted to be. The trajectory of my career was that I would eventually lose my passion for technology and succumb to the dark matter, becoming more and more hidden in legacy code.

But I truly wanted to participate. I didn't want to just be a hidden developer. I felt like an ugly duckling, but I wanted to flourish and spread my wings.

When I got the job at Stack Overflow, I felt like I had grown from the ugly duckling I thought I was into a beautiful swan. (Forget "rockstar developers" - we're using bird analogies now!) It was an excellent tool to help me reframe - I felt like I could actively participate online and that I was now somehow worty.

However... had anything really changed? I still had the same skills I did before. My workdays are still spent in Visual Studio writing C# code solving similar problems. The biggest difference is now my GitHub activity chart has more green squares on it, but I'm still doing the same amount of work.

The lesson from The Ugly Duckling can be applied here too: reflecting back, I had not been a hidden developer this whole time, but I had just thought I was one. Just because I'm thriving now with my new team doesn't mean I couldn't be an active participant. It just means that I found the flock I was meant to be in.

If you're reading this and feeling like a dark matter developer, take a moment to reflect on your own skills. If you were in your own flock of swans, would you be an outsider? Don't let those bully ducklings get you down and stop you from participating today. 🦆