Grassroots Programmers: Love vs. Money

What motivates IT professionals to keep running similar side projects, outside office hours, even though they’re not getting paid?

“I think the drive to create runs deep in me,” says Mark P Neyer, a software engineer at Facebook, “code is just the medium in which I am most expressive, but I also write poetry and stories, play music, and sometimes draw.”

“Looking at the code as it's written, I see an internal structure, a form of beauty,” he continues. “There are geometric patterns in code [which] remind me of what I see in [the] visual arts.”

Over the last couple of months I’ve been trying to track down “grassroots programmers”. This is my term for the people who are driven to pursue IT work outside of work hours. Some people might call them “hobbyists”, but I don’t think this really covers it, because I’m specifically interested in people who also earn their living in IT. My aim is to find out what motivates them.

In March, an article was published in Business Insider titled ‘The Stress Of Being A Computer Programmer Is Literally Driving Many Of Them Crazy’. This identified a condition called ‘Real Programmer’ syndrome which suggested that some programmers love their work so much they spend the whole of their time doing it, which in turn, has a knock-on effect on the entire industry.

This is very interesting, but surely there is a big difference between those who give their day job 110%, at the detriment of their colleagues and those who balance this ‘work for money’ against their own projects ‘for love’?

 “I've always felt the urge, not a compulsion, to make IT 'machinery': code that does interesting and creative things,” says Dana Paxson, who has spent 50 years in IT and has, over the last two decades, built an entire fictional sci-fi universe. “The borderline between 'work' and 'outside of work' became blurred from time to time when I experimented with code.”

“I have always done computer repair,” agrees Nick Amendola “and prior to programming computers I was programming and distributing programs for a TI-84+ calculator in my middle school math class.”

Fraser McKay, who is now in the final year of his computer science PhD, also concurs: “Even [when I was] thinking I would have a career in primary teaching, I was still programming little bits and pieces in my spare time. Building little games and apps is one of my hobbies, because I enjoy it.”

So, why do some people run similar-to-work projects outside work? 

Enjoyment of the work is obviously the key to motivating people who ‘work outside work’, but not surprisingly other factors emerge from different individuals. Paxson describes how: “Curiosity, coupled with a kind of artistic joy in fashioning dynamic behaviour through code, has driven me throughout life in almost everything I've tried to do.”

While McKay says: “What motivates me most is when I see a specific need, like something I want an app for, and I can’t find a solution elsewhere – or at least, not a satisfactory one. I feel much more empowered that, if there isn’t the kind of solution I want, I have the skills to make one.”

Kenny Skaggs who works in consulting in the US, loves helping people and has “never felt an urge to climb the corporate ladder”, characterises his motivation as the desire “to pursue” his “own dream”.

“What I'm really passionate about when programming is the opportunity to build something up,” he continues. “I love to take the primitives of a language and build them up into constructs, and then put those constructs together like cogs and mechanisms to form the machine that the program is. It is how I imagine an artist paints a picture: breaking down what they want to represent into lines and colours and re-constructing them in their own style.”

“Computer technology is little more than an elaborate form of language which derives the entirety of its strength from the reduction in ambiguity,” adds Neyer. “Code is still ambiguous sometimes - this is why different browsers will often display the same website with slightly different looks - but I think this desire to create structure is intrinsic to a lot of people because it was necessary for us to survive.”

Amendola is a little more prosaic: “I guess my biggest motivation is that I don't like working on other people’s ideas. I am not sure how to explain it, but working on what is in someone else's mind is arduous. That is why I want to work in my free time instead of going out to a bar or watching TV. Not that I don't ever socialise - I just do it on the weekends. And I watch TV when I feel like my mind needs a break. But the work I do in my free time will theoretically allow me the freedom to choose what I do for the majority of my days.”

How widespread are these “grassroots programmers”?

It is hard to judge exactly how many IT professionals choose to pursue their own projects outside work and exactly how this split is organised in people’s minds. Paxson says through his long career he has met “some” who have felt compelled to pursue “computing as a passion” however “it's hard to tell from that how widespread it is.”

“I think a great many people play productively and creatively with what they know in computing, but in many of the places I worked, most of them escaped to do other things. That may have been a matter of being stressed by the IT work and trying to get away from the stressful mental frame it created.”

“But that's not me,” he continues. “Computing was never a stress-generator for me because it seemed to be in my blood from the beginning. The workplaces and the people running them were the stress-generators for me. Computing for me became the stress-reliever.”

Peter Lowe who was recommended to me as “a games programmer par excellence in his free time” and works the rest of the time as a lecturer, says he personally works on projects off his own bat because: “It’s fun, and helps a little for work. [There is] joy in learning and pleasure in creating stuff be it Photoshop, mp3 collections or creating full apps and games.”  He reckons “about 15% [of the professionals he has encountered] love what they do and do it all the time.”

McKay says: “It’s certainly common among my group of friends. I think most of us have interests like that – whether it’s tinkering with hardware or working on software projects. My guess is that many of us went into the profession because it was already our hobby.”

He also sees it as a way to build friendship: “A good friend is a maths teacher, and he had this engaging idea for a maths app that makes really cool visualisations. I found the problem intriguing, so [we] ended up spending the weekend working on it. It was something we both enjoyed chatting about and building, and it was fun doing it together.”

‘Working for love’ vs. ‘working for money’?

So, does all this mean there is a sharp divide between ‘working for love’ and ‘working for money’ where people compartmentalise their own projects? Paxson feels: “There's a lot of compartmentalisation as you call it, but there is also what I'd call spill over, in both directions. An idea I develop while playing may become useful at work, and vice versa.”

“Now we have open source thinking and behaviour,” he continues “and that has changed the entire playing field of computing. The boundaries between work and play, or between work for love and work for money, are getting a lot softer as time moves on. I've no idea how that will play out.”

“I compartmentalise the individual projects as belonging to either work or my personal time,” adds McKay, “but there are also things I find interesting from both angles.”

Lowe suggests: “Perhaps 50% have this [compartmentalisation] attitude. However, I work from home and surf the net in work, there is no divide.”

Amendola disagrees: “I am usually not that interested by the programming I do at work and doing my own work it is way for me to get excited about programming again. I know the work I do for money isn't always fun but I have to do it anyway. It feels arduous and I tend to procrastinate.”

“What is funny,” he concludes “is I'll do similar things for a different goal at home and it is infinitely more interesting.”

Does this mentality lead to a compulsory workaholism culture in IT?

Maybe the downside of all this is a compulsory workaholism which simply plagues the people who don’t want to spend their whole time working. Paxson doesn’t agree and feels the game of “compulsory workaholism” is “bogus”.

He says: “What really happens is that the worker simply slows effort in self-defence so that the extra hours look like work, but the regular hours start getting a lot of other things besides work in them.”

“The human body and mind really do not like 80-hour weeks,” he continues. “In the end, there are those who can do the long, sustained schedules of work without stopping or slowing, but their numbers are less than one might think. What is really happening in more cases isn't so much 'workaholism' as it is 'deskaholism': being there at one's workstation doing other things that look like work but aren't.”

Neyer likens it all to the IT term 'greedy algorithm': “This refers to an algorithm that makes its decisions without any planning for the future.”

While Skaggs describes the dichotomy as follows: “When I really get involved with something at work it's as if I somehow identify with it and keep carrying it with me. It's very hard to not continue thinking about how to solve a particular problem after I've left work. It's like that part of my mind doesn't care at all what time of day it is, it just wants to work through the problem.”

However, he agrees there is “definitely a lot of expectations on working overtime,” adding: “I avoid that as much as possible and stick to the companies that give me in writing that they'll never expect me to work more than 40 hours a week.”

As with any job, there are clearly a number of IT professionals out there who really love what they do. What I find fascinating about the “grassroots programmers” though, is their passion for their work is similar to that popularly reserved for visual artists, writers and musicians.

This flies in the face of IT professionals’ geeky, non-creative reputation as these individuals demonstrate a creative compulsion which feels closer to “outsider art” than anything else. The interesting thing is, now, as the real-word and technology become increasingly entwined, it seems likely more and more of these individuals’ work will bubble to the surface.


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