“Pity”, ninjas, and how not to suck


Another post giving the 501 Developer Manifesto more attention than it deserves. I honestly wouldn’t waste my time reading it if I were you.

Why are you still here? If you’ve seriously got nothing better to do than read this, I pity you. I really, really pity you. Because you’re pitiable.

“Pity” is a derogatory word

Let’s get this one out of the way for a start. There’s a reason why “I don’t want your pity” is one of the hallmark clichés of badly written dialogue. If there is probably some pity in your attitude toward someone, it implies that you feel lucky not to be that person; that their situation is deficient in some way that yours is not. If you are making specific reference to an aspect of that someone’s life that they consider important and special and even defining, then you shouldn’t be surprised when they are insulted, and paraphrase Fight Club in Hacker News comments.

A clarification of terms

I shouldn’t really need to write this, as this post on Scott Hanselman’s blog (the first link on the 501 Manifesto page) explains very clearly what is intended by the epithet “501 developer”. It has nothing to do with what time you leave work, or how hard you work while you are there. Being a 501 developer means that you have no great enthusiasm for your work; no desire to learn new and interesting things; no ambition within your chosen career. It means you’re probably just grinding the levels until you get to a better-paid management role, which you will then carry out very badly because you don’t really understand thing one about software development.

If you:

  • Never read technical blogs
  • Are not aware of open source projects (unless they’re forced on you at work)
  • Have never attended any kind of developer-focused event
  • Don’t own any books about coding or productivity
  • Aren’t quite sure why Github is called Github
  • Couldn’t* care less about trying to be better at your job

…then you are a 501 developer, and no, we don’t respect you for it. If you do any of those things, you’re not a 501 developer, regardless of what time you leave work, and I respect you as a professional and as a human being.

*Yes, Americans, the term is “couldn’t care less”. “I could care less” means “I care”.

It is perfectly possible to arrive at work at 9am, leave work at 5 or 5:30pm, and yet still read blogs and discuss software development on the internet and follow internet-famous software people Twitter and go to your local user group when there’s a speaker talking about something that interests you and read Clean Code and maybe do a little bit of extra-curricular coding with something new, and still spend plenty of time with your family and your Moog synthesiser and collection of blank cassette tapes.

That’s the real issue here, is that by taking the time to register a domain and create a web page and attach a blog to it, and by linking to Computer Zen and Coding Horror and making apparent his knowledge of the Agile manifesto, the author of the 501 manifesto has identified himself as anything but a 501 developer. Maybe the problem is that he’s lucky enough to have never worked with an actual 501 developer, in a massive room full of 501 developers for a 501 company in a 501 vertical market, so he doesn’t understand just how bad it can be.

Because you don’t have to be obsessive about it. You don’t have to self-identify as a ninja or a rock-star or a temporally-displaced Olympian demi-god (no? Just me then*). You don’t have to write the blogs, or speak at the user groups, or write the books, or make the next big thing to avoid being classified 501 (but the people who do those things would prefer it if you didn’t make fun of them for it). You just need to care, just a little bit, that’s all.

*Irony, dipshit.

One last thing

If you do have an obsession, and it’s not your job, what are you doing to rectify that situation? Because if you have one all-consuming passion and it’s not what you do all day, every day, and the thing that you do do all day every day keeps you from that passion, that sucks.

It sucks to be in that situation. And you can write a manifesto and you can think you’re “taking back the word” and you can convince yourself the people you work with who love what they’re doing and can’t believe somebody’s paying them to do it are pitiable, but at the end of the day you’re the one being kept from doing the thing you really love by having to do something you merely tolerate because you have two kids and an oppressive mortgage.


  1. *grudgingly*

    this is actually alright. i take issue with your use of the word “Moog” though – they’re massively overrated. and i reserve my sovereign right to poke fun at nerds.

  2. The whole “do what you love” as a job thing sounds nice in an ideal world, but good luck finding someone to pay you to watch hockey and play video games for a living.

    That statement that ignore the fact that people would often rather do something leisurely than something that is work. For every person interested in video games that enjoys hobby game dev, there’s a few hundred that would much rather just play a new game for the same period of time. That’s why you probably get more eye-rolls than buy-in when you toss that cliche around.

    And the point about ‘pity’ is two fold.
    1) it’s simply a disagreement on the value of things like career vs. family. You see it a lot from new parents that have an over-inflated sense of importance, pitying people who have decided not to have children (note: I’m not defending this aspect, even though I am a new parent. I’m also not a douchebag. This part is genuinely annoying and I agree with you).
    2) it’s a backlash to constantly being ‘pitied’ by the self-important “rock star” types who can’t imagine how dreary a family man’s life is b/c he doesn’t spend 5+ hours at home hacking on the next shiny framework.
    The part where the author invoked pity was the only part that was jarring and cringe-worthy to me. I think it comes from a place of frustration, though, rather than condescension. Doesn’t mean it’s ok, but I think it’s good to understand.

    All that being said, I agree that not giving a shit about your profession is bad. I also think the guy who wrote the 501 manifesto agrees. I think his position is that expecting someone to devote *all* of their free time to career advancement is untenable and unrealistic for people with families and non-work-related interests.

    I go to conferences, but only once in a long while.
    I have a few tech blogs I follow, but you can count them on your hands.
    I follow devs on twitter, but more than half are local colleagues.
    I write some code at home, but it’s mostly half-finished demo-ware.
    I try to write stuff of the next big thing (currently Metro apps for Win8), but I only devote a small %age of my time at home to that.

    Given those parameters, you would not call me a “501”, but the manifesto-drafter might. So, is your entire problem with it that you lost an epithet with which to insult people who are unmotivated and lazy about software?

    P.S. Thank you for the footnote about “couldn’t care less”. That drives me nuts.

    • Yes, I expect it’s just a combination of reaction to the use of pity, and the misuse of the primary term, but I also wanted to clarify that personally, I don’t see everybody who doesn’t share my borderline obsession with programming as inferior. I like programming a lot, and tennis a bit. Some people like programming a bit, and quantum mechanics a lot. It’s all good. But people who don’t like programming at all shouldn’t be programmers.

  3. Some home truths there about the 501 developer…not only do senior(or those that claim to be) need to read this but those starting in development need to grasp the basics and stay current with whats happening in the technical field as they move up the ranks.

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