Quite some time ago, Michael O. Church wrote a blog post about the Shodan Programmer (beginning degree programmer, or journey beginning programmer). In this post he detailed a gradient system for identifying programmers with regard to skill, experience and knowledge. Two or three weeks ago, I discovered his post was either removed or his site had been deleted. I’m not entirely sure what led to his Shodan post going MIA, but it was an important idea in the greater discussion of progressing skill and ability.
The last remaining reference to his Dan idea is on a Quora post about the top 1% of programmers. In this post, the person posing the question was trying to find out how some of the greatest developers think and work in order to identify common habits of skilled and high-performing programmers.
With all of this in mind, I decided it is important to provide a new voice to the discussion about the Shodan Programmer. I believe that Church’s metaphor for describing programmer skill and ability holds up quite well against scrutiny. Ultimately, the idea is, programmers come in three broad-scope forms and the line is blurred when digging in and identifying when someone has moved from one part of the scale to another.
Where I currently work, we have three conceptual roles in which a developer falls: learner, contributor and mentor. Although this is, effectively, more closely related to the concept of apprentice, journeyman and master, it does line up, in part, with the greater idea Church presents in his Shodan Programmer post.
The Dan scale goes from 0.0 to 3.0 and, it could be said, this scale is logarithmic. The closer you get to the highest point, the harder it is to actually move the needle and the closer to 0 you are, the more likely you are to see large amounts of measurable improvement. This means it becomes increasingly more difficult to identify the gradation between two programmers with high proficiency.
Let’s have a glance at the three levels of the Dan.
Level 1 programmers, or Adders, are programmers who typically perform the bulk of the programming work in a software shop, solving common problems and interacting with systems. These programmers, given enough time, could eventually solve most problems which are necessary
Level 2 programmers, or Multipliers, are programmers who are capable, not only, of solving a problem, but are versed in higher-level ideas like architecture or library development and maintenance. Multipliers provide means to solve more general problems in order to reduce the amount of time spent solving the same problem over and over.
Level 3 programmers, or Global Multipliers, are programmers who tend to think beyond the scope of the immediate problem and look to solve large-scale problems. Although level 3 programmers can perform the tasks of level 1 and 2 programmers, they tend to take research positions and work on conceptual or innovative new technologies which proliferate through the entire community over time.
Level 1 Programmers
Level 1 programmers are what people would typically think of as entry- and mid-level programmers. These people are more focused on expanding their knowledge either through a learning program or day to day development projects which push their boundaries. Even programmers who have barely written their first Hello World program fall into Level 1, though they are usually not ready for production development for some time yet.
Church writes that a level 1 programmer is typically found on the scale between 0.0 and 1.4. If we were to consider the least experienced developer being hired as a junior or associate developer, we would likely be looking at developers who are at ~0.8 on the scale. Any programmer falling above 1.4 is starting to move into the realm of a Level 2 programmer.
We can see, of course, that this scale leaves a rather wide division between Level 1 and Level 2 since Level 2 actually begins well before a programmer actually reaches the 2.0 mark. It’s highly likely that someone who is working at a 1.2 level is probably starting to move into a mid-level programmer position and they are able to start looking at larger, more complex problems, though they are unlikely to be prepared to do architectural analysis
Church states that many programmers don’t progress beyond 1.2 because they stop actively investing in their own knowledge and education. It is common for someone to become comfortable with the technology stack and problem space they know and settle in.
As you might imagine, a programmer who is at 1.5 is lumped into a Level 2 programmer. This does not mean that everyone who has reached level 1.5 is prepared to take on all tasks a Level 2.0 programmer would be able to accomplish, but they are starting to learn methods and techniques for tackling more challenging problems.
Level 2 programmers fall between 1.5 and 2.4 on the scale and perform a variety of tasks which might be considered too difficult, or too obscure for a Level 1 programmer. This does not imply any sort of superiority, however. More often reaching Level 2 is a product of independent learning, and industry experience. Level 2 programmers, typically, tap into knowledge which comes exclusively through time.
Church states that Level 2+ programmers can be identified through a variety of outlets such as library development or maintenance, speaking at conferences and mentorship. Due to the nature of their output, Level 2 programmers tend to multiply the efforts of a team rather than simply adding to it. This is where we can really see the difference between the Level 1 and Level 2 programmers.
Simply stated, by bringing Level 1 programmers onto a team the team is likely to benefit in an additive way. It is not uncommon to have a development team made up, exclusively, of Level 1 programmers, who produce working software. Typically, by introducing Level 2 programmers, the code quality will increase and the overall team will learn new skills and become a more effective team. This kind of improvement is greater than an additive effect, giving Level 2 programmers the Multiplier name.
The important aspect of a Multiplier is they provide large scale benefit to a company and are often as influential to an organization as a manager or executive. High-performing Multipliers not only raise the skill and ability of the people around them, but they steer projects clear of known pitfalls or dangers and empower the programmers they work with to take the software they touch to greater vistas.
Church calls Level 3 programmers Global Multipliers, but it might be easier to envision them as theorists and researchers. These programmers are at 2.5 and above in the Dan gradient and it is highly unlikely anyone will actually reach 3.0, given the logarithmic nature of the scale.
Typically, Level 3 programmers work on bleeding edge projects and provide the technical and theoretical vision for the result. Level 3 developers are often found working in the R&D departments of large companies like Google, Microsoft or Apple or as high-paid, uniquely skilled contractors and trainers.
Level 3 programmers often have a deep understanding of more than just software development. They typically understand the deep underpinnings of computer science and mathematics. An academic equivalent would be a post-doctorate computer scientist leading research on a funded long-term project.
As with the gap between Level 1 and Level 2 programmers, a Level 3 programmer grows to their position through constant research, development and experience. Both Level 2 and Level 3 programmers have learned through a long process of failure and success. There is no simple path to reaching Level 3 and many programmers may never reach Level 3 simply because they lack the desire to put forth the tremendous amount of effort needed to increase their place on the scale by one or two tenths of a point.
The way Church originally designed this scale, the intent was to identify appropriate skill level for people working in the industry and understand how people might attack a particular problem. Anyone who is at the whole number increments, e.g. 1.0 or 2.0, it is likely they would be able to solve 95% of the problems which could be identified at that skill level.
In other words, someone who is identified at a level of 2.0 would be able to successfully work on and solve 95% of Level 2 type problems. In much the same way, they are likely only going to be able to solve about 5% of Level 3 problems. This works the same way for someone at a level of 1.0, who would be able to solve 95% of Level 1 problems, but only 5% of Level 2 problems.
This means that for each point closer to the next level, a programmer would be able to solve a greater number of problems which would be distinct for that level. This kind of ability growth leads directly to the logarithmic nature of the graph.
Where this level designation comes in handy in day to day work is understanding the level of difficulty for a specific problem. If something is a straightforward coding problem which can be solved through a brute force approach, the problem is likely a level ~1.0 problem. On the other hand, if the problem is largely architectural or generic in nature it is probably more of a level ~2.0 problem.
By understanding where a developer currently falls on the scale will provide insight into the likelihood they will succeed at solving a problem on their own. In other words, if a developer is performing at level ~1.2, they will probably find a problem at level ~2.1 frustrating or inscrutable. On the other hand, they will also, likely, find a level ~0.3 problem trivial or boring.
This gives us a heuristic for maintaining developer engagement. Church claims that developers seeking a challenge perform best at about 65-75% above their skill level. This means we could expect a developer to exhibit moderate growth with a healthy mixture of problems which they consider “simple” for confidence, or 50% below their level, problems at +/-10% of their level and problems which are up to
50% above their level.
What it Means
Ultimately, this scale is not an indictment of anyone’s skill or ability regardless of where they are in their career. Regardless of whether you are just starting out, or you are a multi-decade veteran of the software industry, your place in the Dan is uniquely your own. Some people enjoy the act of writing code and will happily continue forward on that path, while others have ambitions of experience beyond where they are today. The choice is personal and it’s not one I would be comfortable guiding in any way.
Ideally, Church’s Dan should provide insight into the road a programmer could walk to achieve their desires and set a course for their career. Level 1.0 or 1.1 could realistically be reached in a couple of years and, perhaps, a year or so for a particularly dedicated developer. Church states that moving up the scale at 0.1 points per year after the first level is likely an aggressive schedule for many programmers. This means reaching level 2.0 will likely take a dedicated programmer 10 or 11 years on average, but might be achieved in about 8 for someone who is especially active in their research and experience.
I would suggest that the closer a programmer gets to 2.0, the slower the progress is going to feel simply because it takes more effort to cover the ground necessary for each tenth of a point. This is especially true since computer science is a field which is continually expanding and knowledge of topics continues to deepen year over year.
After reaching level 2.0, it could, realistically, take a lifetime to reach 2.5 or above. This is completely dependent upon the programmer and what their desires are. This does not necessarily mean reaching for the pinnacle is not a worthy goal outright. Instead what this means is each person will have to decide on their own whether they want to continue to climb, and what it will mean for their career.
In the end, this scale is simply a means for every person to understand where they currently are in their career, and provide a way to assess problems which will crop up while working on a particular project. In much the same way, revisiting this idea and the scale that comes with it has helped me to understand how to, both, pick appropriate level problems for people I work with as well as understand problems I have yet to face for myself.
In the end, I hope this has helped others to get a taste of the scale Church presented and, perhaps, draw a clearer line from where they are now to where they want to be. Everyone walks the path, the question is where does the journey ultimately lead?