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2 years ago

Are You a Copycat?

We usually make resolutions and decide to change something in our lives as new year starts. Some want to lose weight, or to start exercising, or to make more time for enjoyable activities. If there’s one message that I were to send to software development people at the onset of 2014, it would be this:

Stop looking at how others work. Focus on your own thing.

In a recent article Michael wrote why is it so important for developers to be emotionally engaged with their tasks, showing that entry-level and seasoned professionals have their own kind of fun. In line with this thinking, I want to caution against a malicious syndrome which is the worst enemy of fun. This syndrome is called copycatting.


Copycatting is mostly observed with senior professionals. Juniors do not copycat. They learn by copying. 

Generally, professionals approach the tasks they need to do in one of the two ways. The first way is to take some time alone and do a good deal of authentic thinking, considering the nuances of their task’s unique context. This option might involve looking at how others have done a similar task before, but only briefly. The people who follow this way are in good professional shape, in the right place and at the right time, as they rely on their knowledge to do the job well. The second way is to get stuck online looking at numerous instances of how others have accomplished a similar task. Copycats usually call this “a research”. By the time they need to come up with a workable solution, their vision is so blurred with what they’ve seen or read about the others, that they simply can not return to their productive, creative shape.

Designers create UIs and web-sites. Developers do the architecture and write code. Stakeholders make decisions. With the seeming similarity of the tasks, it’s very tempting to think: “Many other people have already done exactly the same thing that I need to do. They are the recognized leaders in the industry. Why should I bother re-inventing the wheel?”

What’s so wrong with copycatting?

If this mental loop is running between your ears, it’s time for a major fire alarm signalling that you consider your tasks trite.  Well, they indeed might appear boring  to you, in which case you either need to re-configure your approach to the job, or move on to your next big thing.

Persons suffering from the copycatting syndrome can be spotted by such comments as:

1. “That’s how we’ve always done it before” ( does it mean that one is supposed to spit out the obvious duplicates for the rest of their lives?.. or to write confusing comments in the code? … or to handle this unique business challenge in a slam-bang fashion fit only for chopping wood? ).

2. “The Rock Star company has this design pattern on their web-site” (… so what? does it make some sort of a non-expiring indulgence for the copycatting sin? Or does this imply that the Rock Star company is accountable for the copy-paste feel in your design?).

The deadly tentacles of the copycatting syndrome squeeze ruthlessly and won’t let you go. Designers might be spending the bulk of their time skimming the graphics and UIs of others, suffocating their own creativity. Programmers might continue to code in the same fashion while they see that something beyond the code has to be changed. For stakeholders, it’s copy-pasting management and business practices from someone else. The symptoms serve only one purpose: they identify the disease, and call for a cure.

Banish the copycat

If you’re someone in charge, take immediate action once people reveal these symptoms. If a senior is copycatting, it means they have no enthusiasm about their work. They need to be faced with the tasks that would stimulate their genuine creativity, and spark the fire of exploring and finding. If an entry-level employee is copycatting, it’s not that dangerous. Likely, it’s still a part of their professional coming of age, but watch out if they slip into grey copycatting from their enthusiastic apprenticeship.

If you recognize these symptoms in yourself, especially if you’re a senior professional, don’t linger on the illusion of staying in your comfort zone. Go ahead and reinvent your professional identity. Seek the real challenges that would make your blood run faster. Find the things you’re so eager about, that you can’t wait to get out of bed and get down to work. It’s always wiser to take a proactive approach towards changes in your professional life, without waiting for this accumulated boredom to drain you emotionally, until you’re not even fit for the copycat-way of doing your job because of the self-disdain and the gap between what you intrinsically know you’re capable of, and what you’re forcing yourself to do daily.

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  • Yves Hanoulle

    personally, I don’t think it’s that bad. I think people always wanting to re-invent the wheel are worse.
    yes, rockstars copying eachothers music is bad. yet most people are not rockstars.
    I would say the real rockstars they don’t copy. they steal something and adjust to make it their own.
    we have a lot more wannabe rockstars and yes they might be copycats.

    What I would like, is much more DJ’s.
    Old time DJ’s they did not make records, they played great music others have made
    and they mixed great music together to make a sublime night.

    Actually most of these nights are far more original then most rock concerts, because if you have ever followed a few rock groups on a tour and saw a few evenings, you would notice they are almost identical.
    That’s hardly the case with DJ’s.

    I played guitar and I sucked at it. luckily I realised that, and I switched to being a DJ.
    That way, I can play other peoples tunes, and still make good nights of fun,
    And as a coach I am doing exactly the same, I teach people stuff I learned from others. Nothing of what I say, is mine, I just repackaged it.

    I think the same can be said for code. We hardly have many new things in IT.
    the smart companies, repackage what already exist, and mix it into something nice.
    like what apple did with an iphone. Not much new invention in an iphone, yet mixed in a very nice package,,,


  • Jelmer Kuperus

    I think you are mistaking copycatting for professionalism. And besides with this industry moving as fast as it does who has time to get bored and loose his / her enthusiasm

  • indigo777

    Thanks for the comment, Jelmer. I’m exploring the fine line between copycatting and professionalism, that’s what it’s about. This article might sound a bit black-&-white, but there are indeed professionals who come off rather as copycats than as powerful seniors. The copycatting story will help them realize where they are, and what they want to do about their professional life. I’m glad that you’re apparently very enthusiastic about your work :)

  • indigo777

    Yves: a great comparison with DJs :) Yet, what if someone feels uneasy about mixing in samples and knowing that they can do more than that, but are stuck in the patterns of lazy copying? I’ve written this article mostly for those people. You might want to take a look at my other article, Routine Pros and Passion Cons, it resonates with what you’re saying, as far as I can see:

  • Yves Hanoulle

    I personally see a lot more the NIH syndrome (not invented here syndrome)

    as much for coaches as for developers.

    personally try to avoid to invent something new.
    I copy and steal (with persmission) everywhere. and mix and shake it to make it my own.


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