I don’t usually leave comments on blogs I don’t frequent — and honestly, I don’t really comment on blogs I do frequent — but back in late February 2010, someone on DZone posted a link to a blog entry from 2008 answering another blog entry regarding the role of passion in programming.

A semantic argument ensued, which usually happens when definitions of adjectives are up for debate, but in this case, both authors are correct. Passion, professionalism — they’re not mutually exclusive in the realm of programming. But both writers managed to talk around the one point on which they agreed.

The Carnegie Hall web site makes a coy reference to that age-old joke, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The reply: practice.

If you want to improve a skill — be it C# or C-Sharp — you need to practice. To become a master at that particular skill, you need to practice for 10,000 hours.

Malcolm Gladwell seems to get all the press regarding this figure, but Daniel J. Levitan mentioned it first in his book, This Is Your Brain on Music. Levitan says it’s a well-researched figure, and I haven’t scoured the footnotes of the book to verify. Intuitively, it makes sense.

10,000 hours sounds like a pretty big figure, but let’s break it down in terms of something concrete in daily life — the 40-hour work week. Divide 10,000 hours by 40 hours/week, and you get 250 weeks. Divide 250 weeks by 52 weeks/year, and you get 4.81 years. Figure in lunch hours, coffee breaks, that’s roughly 5 years of 9-to-5 work. (Assuming you’re actually productive during all eight hours of a work day. Those five years are probably spread out over six, seven if you’re a real slacker.)

So, yes, there’s a reason employers seek at least five years of experience for their positions — consciously or not, they’re looking for masters.

The quality of the practice matters. I had a piano teacher in college who advocated a method of "perfect practice" — he taught that if you played a passage of music perfectly during rehearsal, your performance will be likewise perfect. (Classical music is all about fidelity to the score.) If you spent five years doing something incorrectly, you’ll be a master of doing it incorrectly.

So here’s where passion and professionalism affect the picture. Passion is needed to make those 10,000 hours feel engaging. If you’re an accountant who hates being an accountant, five years is going to feel like a lifetime. Professionalism, as defined by Mark, is actually the same thing Soon describes without the hyperbolic language. Whatever it’s called, you’re going to need it to reach that mastery.

And really … if you spend that much time being engaged (and not getting burned out), then yes, it may seem like passion/professionalism should take all the credit. It doesn’t.

I’ve been building web sites from the ground up since 2000. Numerically, I ought to be a master at it, and by some accounts, I am. I like what I do, and on the days I don’t, I take solace knowing it doesn’t annoy me as much as, say, working at a newspaper would. (I’ve done that.) But I have interests beyond programming, some dating back further than when I became a programmer.

Do I lack passion, then? Probably not. But I’ve got something that has kept me going for the last 10 years, and even if I never set out to master my programming skills, it doesn’t mean I may not end up doing so.