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Missing this one trait, means you will never be a top developer

I've spent more than 20 years as a developer or leader of developers. I've watched many developers enter and leave the profession, rise in trajectory, and become highly sought after. What never ceases to amaze me are the qualities that outstanding developers possess. You can recognize top developers because they crush every project and have the complete confidence of peers and managers who do not doubt who to turn to for the most important efforts, tasks, and projects. 

Pro tip: Being highly sought after doesn't mean you always have Google, Apple, Meta, Microsoft, or other fill-in-the-blank tech giants knocking on your door and throwing boatloads of cash at you. You can be a top developer at any company that values software as a core product.

But more commonly than not, I see mediocre developers who are content with their status and are not looking to improve their skills and knowledge. Many mediocre developers will wash out and find a different line of work, become managers to stop coding, or, worse yet, continue to code even though they are not passionate about the jobs. 

The top coder mentality includes a lifestyle that often blurs the line between work and play. These developers are rockstars, highly respected by their peers, managers, and those who realize having them on their teams gives them the best chance of delivering over-the-top productivity and leadership, which more than justifies their salaries and bonuses. Only naive managers would believe that outsourcing to get 3-4 developers to replace them ever makes sense. 

If you are curious, and I hope you are, what sets the two groups apart? Read on. If this makes you uncomfortable, stop reading. Hearing this real talk isn't a message for developers who are content with their efforts and knowledge today.

Of course, I am not saying there isn't a middle ground. However, we are focusing on the developers at the top of the pyramid vs. the ones who couldn't cut it and are no longer with us. May they rest in peace. 

Even after moving up the ranks to Senior, Lead, and all forms of senior-level technology leader, including the C-suite, I have yet to stop coding. When you love to code, it's hard to stop. While I admit my days as an individual contributor are past me, I still code to stay current with where things are going. I also still enjoy teaching and instructing new developers entering the industry. 

There is a reason that you observe other developers with envy. You think the developer next to you is a prodigy, a top coder with the gift that leaves everyone around them behind. The magic pill to be in their class as a developer doesn't exist. The "it's just in their genes" is not valid. The reason they outperform you is simple and boils down to 2 words: Intellectual Curiosity.

Intellectual Curiosity fuels top developers' success in producing mind-blowing outputs. This secret sauce drives and sustains them when the passion temporarily fades, and the challenges and pressures to perform consistently are closing in like a hunter on its prey. 

The best developers and technology leaders are always learning. They don't walk away, leaving problems unsolved. They research and discover ways to solve problems standing in their way. They laugh at the thought that you can learn everything you need on the job. They don't shy away from challenges but take the most demanding tasks in a sprint, commit to completing assignments, and don't make excuses. You might throw in the towel when you can't fix a problem in an 8-hour day, a 40-hour week, or a 2-week sprint. But the best developers keep going until the correct results are delivered. If this doesn't describe you, you won't be in the top percentage of developers.

Top developers need and are driven by learning as much as they can about solving problems with code. They don't stop after reading about how to code or watching video tutorials; they apply this new knowledge. They create side projects and code what they learn to "burn" new validated knowledge into their brains. Watching tutorials or reading blog posts without applying learnings will not make you a top developer. You must practice what you learn to confidently say, "I recognize this problem, and I have solved similar ones." 

No team wants you to experiment on mission-critical projects because you read about something but have never cared enough to prove that it works with your written code. You aren't born with this confidence and skill. You build skills by starting at the bottom and learning to code to solve simple challenges. Then, you learn the next skill to build on the previous one. Learning this way has a compounding and multiplying effect on your confidence and productivity because you recognize problems faster and the types of solutions that you correctly applied in the past. And this isn't just a linear process. You branch as your interests and needs take you on different paths. But you are constantly leveling up your knowledge and confidence by proving that what you read or watched works, that you understand why it works, and the core problem the content addresses.

Mediocre developers won't do these things. If it's not on the company's dime, it's not worth their time. Don't be one of these developers who believe coding is just a day job and that your passions live elsewhere. If this description matches you, my advice is to quit now and pursue options elsewhere in a non-developer role. Why clock in doing work you don't like that doesn't move you to invest yourself fully? 

The success formula is simple. You continuously learn and apply what you know, which should feel like something other than work, and you will confidently and consistently outperform your peers. Your rewards are achieving promotions faster, earning a living that surpasses other developers, and having the self-satisfaction of knowing you are a top coder. 

It's always possible to change direction and get more from your career as a developer if you want it. You can reach higher goals with more dedication or stall because you feel you know enough without real investments in active learning. If it were up to me, choosing to keep learning is a no-brainer.

If you found this post helpful, please consider liking and following me. With over 20 years in tech, from developer to CTO, I’ve navigated numerous startup challenges and understand the hurdles you may face. I’m here to offer real, actionable solutions if you’re a startup founder, solopreneur, or developer seeking guidance. You can find me on social media.

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