Being a Developer must not become a burden

This post has been inspired by a discussion spawned from a thread on Vanilla Community, about the topic of business models for the products created by Developers. Very briefly, one of the key points was the comparison between a purely commercial model, where (almost) everything that one creates is sold for cold, hard cash, versus a more collaborative one, where Developers give their contribution in form of code and knowledge, and obtain the same in return, without exchange of currency.

Vanilla Community is very much oriented towards the latter approach, by providing an invaluable amount of software, knowledge and expertise, completely free of charge. In that sense, I am kind of a “black sheep”, as I recently decided to start selling some of the plugins I created, rather than giving them away for free. Of course, anyone is free to do what he, or she, likes with the fruit of his, or her, own labour, and I’m not advocating that every single line of code should be sold for big bucks. In fact, I actively contribute to Vanilla Community (and several others) without billing my time, for the sake of helping people the same way they helped me when I started.

Other people do it for passion: they absolutely love coding, or maybe working with a specific set of tools, or even just working in a specific field, and they can’t help but share this passion. As soon as someone asks about something that they love, passionate people give everything they can to help. Some of them even get on a high by doing it. Passion can really be a drug.

Bitter truth

However, and, I would like to add, unfortunately, the world doesn’t run only on good will. One of the issues of having a passion is that such passion can easily be exploited with our consent. I cringe when I hear young Developers saying that “they can’t believe that they get paid to do something they would happily do for free“. That is the first step to get royally screwed by people who have passion for nothing else, but their own profit (I bet many salespeople’s ears are buzzing, right now). When they see that your skills are valuable, but that you are ready to give them away for peanuts, they run to the nearest shop and get you three sacks of them. Don’t expect that they will spend even one second thinking that they are exploiting you. Such concept is unknown to them, that part of their brain tends to malfunction more often than not. In short, apart from rare cases, Companies have no interest in paying you more than what you sell yourself for.

Should you become a “greedy bastard”, then?

Despite greed being built-in in all animals (including humans) as a mechanism for survival, I’m not advocating a greedy behaviour. I simply say that, if you can afford working for free, or for very little, you are conscious of doing it and you are fine with it, there is no harm. This, though, doesn’t mean that you can expect everyone else to do the same, as other people, like myself, for example, have to pay bills and support a family. Even if they just like to smoke cigars and drink expensive Brandy, the bottom line is the same: they need money. That doesn’t make them any worse, or any better than someone who works for pure passion: they just have different needs and priorities, and act accordingly.

My experience

In my 15 years of career, I admit I have worked on many projects just for the sake of it, without expecting (or obtaining) any compensation, therefore I know what it means to work for passion. I also got exploited because of it, and it took me almost five years before “waking up”. Five years in which I got paid X per month, while my employer charged the same amount per day. Considering that all the work was done by me, and that, without me, my employer would not have obtained the contract, I wonder what the hell was I thinking at the time, and why didn’t I set up my own business, instead of “working for passion”. Believe, it’s a painful memory.

My personal recommendation

To all the young Developers out there, I can tell what I already wrote in the past: find your worth, and don’t settle for anything below it. It’s great to have a passion, it’s great to be part of a great Community of free people, but don’t wait to have arrears to pay. Don’t be afraid of asking for money, when your work is valuable to the other party. They surely have a budget, and they expect you to set a price. Besides, negotiating payment is a fundamental skill that any Developer must learn, together with dealing with Clients (on a regular basis) and many other non-technical skills. And, remember, when Clients cry, it’s because they don’t want you to notice that they are actually laughing.

A “song” of warning

I’m closing this post with the translation of one of my favourite songs. It was written in 1971 by one of the best Italian singers ever lived, and it applies quite well to the topic of this post.

Translation is not literal, but the concepts are unaltered. If you wish to listen to the original song, you can find it on YouTube.

A Doctor – F. De Andrè (1971)

As a kid, I wanted to heal the cherry trees, when, red with fruits, I believed them wounded.
Health, in my eyes, had abandoned them, together with the snow-white flowers that they lost.

It was a dream, but it  lasted long, therefore I swore I would become a doctor.
Not for God, not as a game, but so that the cherry trees would bloom again.

And when I finally was a doctor, I didn’t want to betray my childhood dreams.
A lot of them came, and they were called “people”, sick cherry trees in all seasons.

And my colleagues agreed, my colleagues were happy to see in my heart so much will to love.
They sent me their best customers, with the diagnosis right on their faces, the same for them all: sick with hunger, unable to pay.

Then I understood. I was forced to understand, that being a doctor is just a job, that you can’t give science away for free, if you don’t want to get sick with the same condition.
If you don’t  want that the system corners you in your hunger.

And the sure trick is to take advantage of your hunger. Of your children, of your wife, who now despises you.
So I closed in a bottle those snow-white flowers. The label said “Youth Elixir”.

And a judge, a man, sent me to spend my sunsets in prison.
Useless to the world, forever stamped as “trickster and charlatan”. Doctor, Professor Trickster Charlatan.

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