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Ask the Programmer: The Extravagant Programmer

question-mark_resized Ask the programmer is feature designed to answer questions from non-geeks about hiring and working with programmers. If you have a question, please email me at

Question: I recently hired a programmer to build custom applications and reports. He is asking me to spend lots of money on a new computer and software. My company isn’t giant – I don’t have lots of spare dollars to spend. But I am willing to fork out some dough if it will help him work faster. How can I tell if these requests are legitimate or a spending spree?

Answer: It is true that some technologists are happy to spend lots of money on computer hardware and software, especially if it isn’t their own cash. But there are some good reasons why those investments might help your programmer be more productive. Here are the typical reasons for programmer purchases:

Speed-hardware. Programmers often need to run tools that take up lots of memory and processor cycles. These tools can really clog some computers making them slow and unwieldy. Upgraded hardware can translate to tangible productivity benefits in these cases. For example, if the programmer needs to compile their code about every 15 minutes, and compile time can improve from 2.5 minutes to 30 seconds, that can mean over an hour of gained time a day.

Speed-software. New technologies can shave significant development time, once the programmer has mastered it. For example, when ASP.NET was first released, it made applications much easier to build than classic ASP. One of my customers asked for a classic ASP bid, but I also provided an ASP.NET bid that was less money and provided more functionality.  This can be tricky to quantify because there is usually an initial productivity hit while the programmer is learning the technology.

There may also be a  buy versus build argument to consider. Your programmer might ask for a component or tool that they could build themselves. But do you want them to spend the next 3 months building something they could have purchased for $200?

Support. Nothing lasts forever. Your developer might want to spend money upgrading because the your software is so old vendor support is waning or non-existent. Keeping current on technology will mean smaller regular investments rather than larger expenses that are more difficult to implement.

So there are legitimate reasons for new technology. But how do you know? Here are some suggestions for clarifying the issue:

  • Ask for business justification for each of the items. An acceptable answer is not: I need it. A good programmer will be able to make the business case.
  • Ask for prioritization of the list so that the items with the most bang-for-the-buck are at the top.
  • Review the specific items. Ask what kind of shelf life he anticipates for those items. Does he think you’ll need to upgrade in a year?
  • Work with the programmer to come up with a plan for the year that takes their major concerns into account in addition to your budgetary constraints.

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What the critics are saying...

Avonelle is an incredibly talented software developer. She works fast, is economical, and offers great insights into the project at hand. She is also not afraid to speak up when she has concerns about a decision or approach. We’ve utilized her talents on many of our software development projects over the years.

Carrie Rocha, Chief Operating Officer @ HousingLink