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5 Hidden Mistakes That Can Ruin a Developer’s Career

    Andrew McDermott
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    It’s hard to find a new development job, so when you’ve got one, the last thing you want to do is lose it without even knowing why. In this article, we look at five ways you can inadvertently pull the rug out from under your developer career.

    A Dreaded Pattern

    When you accept a new development role, things are great in the beginning. But as your career progresses, you may notice that your co-workers are less willing to help you and are unwilling to ask for your help. Your boss tolerates you, but it feels like he’s waiting for the chance to replace you.

    It’s indirect, but you can’t shake the feeling.

    Suddenly, you’ve lost your job, without really knowing why. It’s not so easy to get your next job, and once you’ve got it, the same patterns start to emerge as last time.

    Mistakes That Ruin a Developer’s Career

    Okay, “mistakes that ruin a developer’s career” might sound a bit overdramatic or exaggerated. But is is?

    As we’ll see, these mistakes create major problems for developers who are ignorant or unaware. These problems aren’t deal breakers in the beginning. They become deal breakers once everyone is fed up and tired of these problems.

    There’s a lot to unpack here. We’re not looking for common or routine mistakes. We’re looking for hidden mistakes — the kinds of mistakes people won’t point out but will punish you for.

    Here are the hidden mistakes we’ll look at:

    1. Behaving like a coconut when you’re surrounded by peaches.
    2. Asserting power over peers.
    3. Outshining your peers and masters.
    4. Using the four horsemen in your professional relationships.
    5. Performing like a mercenary while expecting patriot rewards.

    Let’s dig into what these are all about.

    1. Behaving like a coconut when you’re surrounded by peaches

    This is difficult for developers.

    If you’re like most developers, you’re used to being the smartest one in the room. When someone makes a mistake or attempts to cut corners, you have no problem telling it like it is. The truth hurts, but hey, you’re a “truth-teller.”

    That’s the problem.

    According to psychologist Kurt Lewin, people of the world are divided into two camps, peaches or coconuts.

    • Peaches are soft on the outside: they’re warm, friendly, and kind, but they’re hard on the inside, out of necessity. These are the people who seem to open up to you but are difficult to pin down and slow to truly trust or bond. Coconuts often view peaches as dishonest, insincere, or insensitive. Get past that tough inner exterior, and you have a thoughtful friend who will look for opportunities to act in your best interest.
    • Coconuts are hard on the outside: they’re distant, aloof, cold, and disinterested, but they’re soft and sweet on the inside. Peaches view them as jerks, cruel blowhards who are unlikeable and not worth getting to know. Get past a coconut’s tough exterior, though, and you have a loyal friend for life.

    Here’s the problem.

    Whether you’re seen as a peach or a coconut can be relative to country, environment, or culture you find yourself in. A Brit may be viewed as a coconut in California or a peach in France. Developers may be viewed as insensitive and aloof jerks by sales and marketing, but thoughtful peaches by inexperienced developers who’ve been taken under their wing.

    See what I mean?

    Is this really a hidden “mistake”, though? Maybe this whole thing is a simple misunderstanding.

    Not so much.

    Here are a few examples outlining common peach/coconut scenarios in a developer’s world.

    • You view employees in sales and marketing as inherently dishonest, expressing latent hostility.
    • Your boss is an over-optimistic idiot, promising the world to everyone then forcing you to do the impossible.
    • Some of your co-workers are sloppy. Their code is full of mistakes, and you don’t mind telling them so.
    • You’ve gone out of your way to help inexperienced developers, but they aren’t grateful for your help.

    Some of these sound really bad, as if you’re a megadouche for even thinking it.

    You’re not.

    If you’re a peach, you may try to endure an unpleasant situation because conflict isn’t something peaches do well. On the other hand, if you’re a coconut, you instantly bring it up in a way that can be perceived as cold and very matter-of-fact.

    It’s important to read the room.

    Often these are cultural differences that aren’t obvious, and that’s the problem! Your peers or your boss automatically assume you have the same cultural norms they do. So in their mind, if you’re not behaving in ways they expect, it’s not because you have a different mindset. It’s because you’re a colossal jerk.

    Only you’re not.

    You have no idea these cultural issues shape impressions, affect team dynamics and redefine reputational boundaries. You’re just trying to be helpful, to do your job.

    2. Asserting power over peers

    You’re sharing war stories with your fellow developers. You got this one client out of a tough spot, rewrote their code, and you delivered on time and on budget. You even received a huge bonus from your boss!

    All of a sudden, things get quiet.

    Instead of one-upping you like they always do, they go silent. They pull back, refusing to share stories or open up as they’ve done before. In time, you find they’re distant, or you’re suddenly enemies.

    What just happened?

    You asserted power over your peers. You one-upped them in a way that was difficult to counter. Most people view person-to-person interactions as a kind of power interaction. Take the innocent question “what do you do for a living?” That’s not the real question; no one cares what you do. Okay, what’s the real question?

    How much respect should I give you?

    When I first learned about this, I was angry. I naively asked, “what kind of insecure jerk approaches personal and professional interactions this way?”

    The answer? Most of the planet.

    When you break things down to their core, it’s all about power — dominance and competence hierarchies. If you’re more competent/dominant, you receive greater access to resources, more opportunities, and increased connections.

    Here’s why this matters.

    Most people dislike or hate those who assert power over them (it doesn’t matter if it’s intentional or accidental).

    Think about it.

    Let’s say you’ve been working towards the senior developer spot. It comes with a 40 percent pay rise, lots of privileges, and a chance to work on big projects.

    You have seniority. You’re the most qualified. But you don’t get the promotion. Instead, it’s given to the inexperienced new guy who was hired six months ago. Even worse, he’s unaware of the situation, and he decides to brag about his promotion and pay rise.

    How do you feel about him?

    Realize that this happens daily, in almost every workplace. It doesn’t matter whether it’s accidental or intentional. Whether among friends or co-workers, people don’t seem to like it very much. Assert power consistently over your manager, and you burn your bridges.

    3. Outshining your peers and masters

    Developers learn to be competitive.

    There are lots of benefits to competition, and developers learn to excel in high-pressure situations. In addition, they learn how to solve complicated problems quickly, which makes them more attractive to employers.

    These are all good things.

    Notice I’m talking about competing rather than outshining. Outshining your employer and your peers is a no-no, but it’s something most people will never, ever admit is an issue.

    Why not?

    Because it’s indefensible, that’s why! The senior developer wants to coast in his position and collect the rewards. You’re driven and focused on results. He automatically looks bad by comparison. It immediately becomes apparent that he’s failing. This is why most people follow this maxim:

    I want you to be good, just not better than me.

    When you outshine those around you, you assert power over them, which they absolutely hate. Do it enough, and they begin to hate you, see you as a threat, or both. Robert Greene, in his uncomfortable book 48 Laws of Power, lists “never outshine the master” as rule number 1. Here’s how he describes it:

    Always make those above you feel comfortably superior. In your desire to please and impress them, do not go too far in displaying your talents, or you might accomplish the opposite — inspire fear and insecurity. Make your masters appear more brilliant than they are, and you will attain the heights of power.

    Whenever I read that, I feel … gross.

    It sounds and feels unpleasant, as if we’re manipulating people by hiding or masking our true abilities. It isn’t very ethical. But in my experience, there are several strategies you can use to avoid outshining those around you while still achieving incredible things in your career:

    • Publicly thank your co-workers for their contributions, help, and support.
    • Share the spoils of success once you achieve a positive outcome (such as sharing credit, cash, connections, and so on).
    • Ask co-workers for advice.
    • Allow your boss and co-workers to take the credit for your work (the rationale being that they can’t repeat the performance).
    • Minimize the outcomes and success you’ve achieved.

    There are more options you can pursue, but I think you get the idea. Showboating in a way that embarrasses your manager or senior peers is a terrible way to win promotions or further your career. Competition is important, but outshining those around you is a bad idea. Learn the difference between the two.

    4. Using the four horsemen in your professional relationships

    John Gottman can predict divorce with over 90 percent accuracy. He refers to what he calls The Four Horsemen as predictors of divorce. Of course, you’re not married to co-workers or your manager, so how is this helpful?

    These horsemen refer to all relationships.

    When these horsemen are present, they erode relationships over time, destroying the trust, goodwill, and empathy present in a relationship. Here’s a shortlist of these four horsemen:

    • Criticism: “You never document your code properly; it’s almost like you’re doing this on purpose to try to get me to do your job for you. Stop being lazy and do it right the first time!”
    • Contempt: “You’re such a baby. You haven’t had the problems I’ve had with these commits. I’ve had to deal with all kinds of client headaches, but here you are, struggling to clean up local commits before pushing. Pathetic.”
    • Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault we aren’t using vc the way we’re supposed to! I didn’t get the training I needed. How was I supposed to know?”
    • Stonewalling: Shutting down, tuning out, pretending to be busy; these are all examples of stonewalling. It’s ending communication in a way that prevents closure, resolution, or reconciliation.

    These behaviors are unbelievably common in professional settings.

    Developers behave this way with other developers; managers do this to their subordinates. Subordinates do this to their manager. This kind of toxic behavior is prevalent in unhealthy work environments, especially if there’s a hierarchy issue.

    The damage is cumulative.

    In the beginning, managers and co-workers are patient. They put up with bad behavior they should reject, especially if they’re part of a peach culture. But, eventually, they make a decision that enough is enough.

    Once that happens, they move on.

    These people refuse to vouch for those who misbehave. Instead, they fire them, remove them from their business, turn on them and replace them. In the end, people stop listening to those who use the four horsemen.

    5. Performing like a mercenary while expecting patriot rewards

    According to Gallup and Steve Rasmussen, former CEO of Nationwide, employees fall into two camps: patriots or mercenaries. Let’s take a look at how this breaks down for developers.

    • Patriots: these developers are engaged. They’re true believers who believe in their company and their managers. They protect their company’s interests, and they expect their managers to protect them as well. These employees give value first but get value in return from their employers.
    • Mercenaries: these developers are self-absorbed, corporate climbers who look out for number one. At best, these employees aren’t engaged. At worst, they’re disengaged saboteurs who are loyal so long as they get what they want. These mercenary developers demand value (money, opportunity, recognition) first and give value minimally. Their employers have to pay to play.

    What’s worse, these developers believe they’re patriots.

    But they’re not.

    Their employers know as well. They know how to identify these mercenary developers. While there are lots of signals that point to a mercenary developer, one signal stands out. Do you know what it is?

    It’s their work history.

    Mark Suste is an American entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He’s a managing partner at Upfront Ventures, the largest venture capital firm in Los Angeles. Here’s what he had to say about mercenary employees.

    As I’ve said now repeatedly in the comments — quitting 1–2 jobs early when you’re young is acceptable. I get that when people are young, they’re exploring life and work. But 6 times is a pattern. One person accuses me of “not trying to get to know the person but just judging them by their past.” Um, yes. Of course! It’s like a woman who is dating a man who has had 6 wives and cheated on all of them before divorcing them but she somehow thinks SHE will be different. Philanderers establish patterns that they don’t easily break. Career job hoppers are no different. They might perform well while they’re there but in the end they’re just not likely to stick around.

    He shares an example.

    If you’re 30 and have had 6 jobs since college, you’re 98% likely to be a job hopper. You’re probably disloyal. You don’t have staying power. You’re in it more for yourself than your company. OR … you make bad decisions about which companies you join.

    Did you see that? Let’s talk about why this is a career-ender.

    Networking

    In my previous post I shared details on the hidden job market. Only 20 to 39 percent of all the jobs that exist are posted publicly. The rest — 70 to 80 percent of all jobs — are hidden and only available to insiders. So how do you gain access to these jobs?

    With lots of networking.

    If you’re a mercenary, how do you think pursuing these opportunities in the hidden job market will go? That’s right, it won’t go. People will quietly spread the word that you’re a mercenary. So what does this mean for you? It means that the job opportunities you receive will be limited (if you receive any at all).

    Your reputation as a mercenary precedes you.

    Employers want to see patriots — the true believers who will stay with them when times get tough. They prefer to avoid developer mercenaries unless they’re freelancers or consultants (but they prefer patriots there too).

    So, what if you’re a mercenary? Your career opportunities will shrink over time as more and more people see that you’re in it for yourself more than your company. Either you’ll become a patriot, or your time as a mercenary will end.

    These Mistakes Ruin a Developer’s Career

    Remember, this isn’t about the obvious mistakes. We’re focused on the hidden mistakes — the kinds of mistakes your co-workers and managers won’t point out but will punish you for.

    Maybe you didn’t know? Well, it’s still your responsibility. These problems aren’t deal breakers in the beginning. They become deal breakers once it’s too late to undo them. The downside to all of this that no one will show you where you’re going wrong. Instead, they’ll withdraw, taking their connections, opportunities, and cash with them.

    But now you’re in the know. You can’t say you weren’t warned!

    If you avoid these mistakes, you won’t need to worry about finding a new job. With a bit of networking and the right structure, new opportunities will find you.