Alpha, Beta, Gamma Programmers?

A few days ago, I wrote the third in a series of "Version Control and You" and referenced Ben Collins-Sussman's post about the the 20/80 split in the the technology community. In the couple days since that post, Ben sent me a link to his followup and my friend and (not really) colleague Eli White of Digg shared some thoughts.

While Ben had to defend himself and apologize, I think Eli added something important to the conversation that I hadn't been able to put my finger on…. the Beta Programmers For the link-lazy, here you go:

I think that there is a strong 'beta' segment though, that is right in the middle. As a member of that segment, I'll speak up and attempt a description of us. We are the ones who keep track of the cutting edge stuff, but don't go and code a brand new project in it. We pride ourselves in knowing 'about it all' without having to 'know it all'. We installed linux, at least once, but never bothered fully maintaining it. We consider ourselves programming geeks, and can 'sometimes' be found in the evenings, or weekends, cranking out some code for home projects. But 90% of the time, after we've spent 8 hours at work looking at code, we are ready to go off and do something else for 'fun'.

Before this description, I considered myself a low-functioning Alpha but being a high-functioning Beta makes a bit more sense. I actively contribute to Open Source projects – like web2project, dotProject, and a few others. I blog here regularly and speak at a few conferences, but I'm definitely not a thought leader. I run Linux on the server and the desktop but once I get the system working, I leave it alone. I pride myself on my pragmatism (aka laziness) in terms of technology, tools, and topics. If it doesn't fit my needs (real or perceived), I don't get past a cursory knowledge of it.

That said, I think every developer should constantly improve their skills.

I don't care who you are or what you do, if your skills don't expand past what is immediately required for your job, they will atrophy and eventually you will be out of date. Odds are that you won't retire from your current job… you'll have a few more first. So you simply can't afford it.

You don't know when your current job will end or what your next job will require.