TweetFollow Us on Twitter





[IMAGE 048-050_Veteran_Neophyte1.GIF]

In the interest of pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge in my own small way, I decided to conduct a little survey via e-mail. I asked only one question:

What's so interesting about programming computers, anyway?

I sent out 87 letters and received 37 direct responses, a 43% return rate! This is a fantastic return rate for a survey. As one respondent wrote:What an interesting survey! Getting hackers to talk about themselves should be easy!

It was.

To alleviate your suspense, here are the top two reasons programmers program, according to my survey:
1. Programmers like solving problems and puzzles. (49%)
2. Programming is a creative outlet. (36%)

In the survey itself I included some hypothetical answers to my own question, as follows:

Do you just like doing puzzles? Is it the money? Was it a horrible accident, and you were supposed to be a doctor when you grew up? Is it because you're really an artist, and computers are the best medium around? Is it because it's the only profession where you don't need to wear shoes to meetings? Is it because you get to hang out with smart people?

Unfortunately, while this accurately conveyed my enthusiasm for the subject, it also completely shredded any objectivity my survey might have had, and skewed the results sharply toward the tight, square little box of my preconceptions. Note that the top reason appears in this list, and furthermore it appears first. Coincidence? I think not. As one alert respondent pointed out, I even blurred the important distinction between what makes programming interesting and what makes it a nice business to be in. Sheesh.

Abandoning rigor and embracing whimsy, I decided to dump all the responses into one big text file and do a word frequency analysis of the whole thing, logging how many times each word appeared. Ignoring the common words likethe and the expected words likeprogram , the winner was problem, at 12 occurrences. Game came in a close second, at 11 appearances. Three words tied for third place, at 8 occurrences:fun, interesting, and think. Nowthis is a satisfying analysis!

Other frequently appearing words were these:puzzle, art, control, creation, enjoy, paid, challenge, complex, efficient, god, high, hooked, money, music, play,and solving. Taken together, they make astrangely accurate mantra about what programming is like, and probably describe in a more complete way than any individual answer why people program.

But let's look again at those top two reasons. In second place we have "Programming is a creative outlet." That fact was mentioned over and over again, but creativity comes in many varieties, and it's interesting to look at the metaphors people chose to describe the act of writing software. Interestingly, they fell into three very distinct categories: programmer as mechanic, programmer as artist, and programmer as God.

The similarities between computer programming and mechanical engineering may be deeper than it seems at first glance:

I got hooked on erector sets when I was young.
-- John Powers

But if programmers are just frustrated machinists, then why don't they get up from their computers and build real machines? Here's why:

On a computer, I can build an amazingly fantastic and elegant gadget, with thousands of working parts all cooperating pleasantly with one another, and I never have to get my hands dirty.
-- Jeremy Nguyen

If you're willing to build your machines behind the glass of a computer monitor, to build them out of logical stuff instead of real stuff, then suddenly the landscape of possible machines becomes effectively infinite. You can build any machine you canthink of, and all those pesky, annoying details like friction and inertia and tensile strength just fall away. For people who like to design machines, and especially for those who aren't so keen on the grease and skinned knuckles, this is a powerful attraction.

Other people chose to compare programming with creating art:

I'm not very good at art, but when I write something that works well I feel like an artist creating a piece of artwork.
-- Kevin Mellander

My father is a painter, and I grew up watching him continually producing new artwork . . . Software is just another medium, less messy, easier to change.
-- Fred Huxham

Programming is definitely a means of expression, and unlike other media software can simulate everyother medium; in Alan Kay's words it's ameta-medium. For those with an artistic leaning this is rich ground, indeed: you can create your artandyou can create new ways of creating art.

My own favorite creation metaphor is programmer as God:

I like it because you can play God, albeit on a microscopic scale. It's hard to explain, but writing code is like creating new life.
-- Dave Hersey

It is the closest I can get to being God (without lifetimes of sadhana). I get to sculpt a little "life-form" that, while admittedly unsophisticated, has a satisfying degree of autonomy.
-- Corey Vian

Since software is something that's dynamic in time and semi-autonomous, it can fairly convincingly imitate living things, in much the same way that machinery often can. But since the software "machines" that computers allow us to construct can be orders of magnitude more complex thanmachines in the real world, their resemblance to life can be much more compelling, much more striking.

The joy of solving problems (or thecompulsion to solve them, as the case may be) seems to be the major reason people program. My favorite survey response of all sums this up nicely:

The reason I program is because I'm a compulsive problem solver and my computer is a never-ending source of problems.
-- Craig Prouse

It's the twin meaning of "never-ending" that I love so much here. The fact that the problems never end is one of those "both blessing and curse" features that computers seem to overflow with. On the one hand, it means that we have an inexhaustible source of puzzles and problems to slake our thirsts, but on the other hand it means that we can never really be finished, and like Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill, we are doomed to repetitive toil, solving the same kinds of puzzles over and over again.

Here are some of the other reasons people gave, which didn't fall neatly into any category:

It's basically because I have all these ideas in my head, and a computer is the best way to get them OUT of my head . . .
-- Jeff Barbose

Solving the problems is fun, but I must admit that I enjoy the company of the machine -- it's not every day you meet somebody who will associate with you unconditionally.
-- Steve Beitzel

I program to get back at my senior year English teacher. I once got a bad grade on an English paper, and she couldn't give me any concrete reasons why. She just didn't like it. The computer, on the other hand, always gives me a reason why I'm incorrect. It's a game I play with my Mac . . . There are a bunch of rules and it tells me (usually via a bus error) that I broke one.
-- Konstantin Othmer

It's the one thing in my life that is easy to debug.
-- Michael Weingartner

These last two hint at something else that I think might be important. In sharp contrast to the real world, the world of the computer is reassuringly knowable. What this means is thatcomputer problems always have answers. There is always a discoverable reason behind a computer's behavior, and I can't help wondering whether this is one of the major reasons people get such satisfaction from programming.

Most questions we ask about the real world turn out to be hopelessly complicated. How can we improve the economy? No neat and tidy answer to that one. Why does your child love those particular red plastic boots so much? That's not really answerable in any complete way. Why is ice slippery? Why is the sky blue? How do birds know when it's time to fly south? None of these questions have clean answers.

Ironically, though, there seems to be a basic human need tofindanswers. Look at the huge amount of time and energy we spend trying to discover and proclaim truths about our world. Religion, art, and science are all manifestations of the human desire to understand. So it's no surprise that computers, with their fantastically complex but ultimately knowable behavior, are extremely satisfying artifacts to spend time grappling with. Finding the answers can be enormously challenging, but there's always an answer to be found:

It gives me one thing I *know* I can boss around.
-- Jim Luther



  • Dreams of Reason by Heinz R. Pagels (Simon and Schuster, 1988).
  • The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).
  • Tuesday by David Wiesner (Clarion Books, 1991).

DAVE JOHNSON's favorite book between the ages of 5 and 11 was the World Book Encyclopedia. Sometimes in the early mornings, before anyone else was awake, he'd sneak out of bed, creep quietly through the dark and silent house to the living room, and slip a volume from the shelf. ("M" is fondly remembered to this day: matches, monsters, motors . . . ) Stopping off in the kitchen for a stack of cookies, he'd make his way back to his bed, and stay there reading and generating crumbs as the sun came up.*

Thanks to all the survey respondents and to Jeff Barbose, Michael Greenspon, Bill Guschwan, Mark ("The Red") Harlan, Bo3b Johnson, Lisa Jongewaard, and Ned van Alstyne for their always enlightening review comments. *

Dave welcomes feedback on his musings. He can be reached at JOHNSON.DK on AppleLink, on the Internet, or 75300,715 on CompuServe.*


Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Civilization VI 1.1.0 - Next iteration o...
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI is the next entry in the popular Civilization franchise. Originally created by legendary game designer Sid Meier, Civilization is a strategy game in which you attempt to... Read more
Network Radar 2.3.3 - $17.99
Network Radar is an advanced network scanning and managing tool. Featuring an easy-to-use and streamlined design, the all-new Network Radar 2 has been engineered from the ground up as a modern Mac... Read more
Quicken 5.5.6 - Complete personal financ...
Quicken makes managing your money easier than ever. Whether paying bills, upgrading from Windows, enjoying more reliable downloads, or getting expert product help, Quicken's new and improved features... Read more
Civilization VI 1.1.0 - Next iteration o...
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI is the next entry in the popular Civilization franchise. Originally created by legendary game designer Sid Meier, Civilization is a strategy game in which you attempt to... Read more
Network Radar 2.3.3 - $17.99
Network Radar is an advanced network scanning and managing tool. Featuring an easy-to-use and streamlined design, the all-new Network Radar 2 has been engineered from the ground up as a modern Mac... Read more
Printopia 3.0.8 - Share Mac printers wit...
Run Printopia on your Mac to share its printers to any capable iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Printopia will also add virtual printers, allowing you to save print-outs to your Mac and send to apps.... Read more
ForkLift 3.2.1 - Powerful file manager:...
ForkLift is a powerful file manager and ferociously fast FTP client clothed in a clean and versatile UI that offers the combination of absolute simplicity and raw power expected from a well-executed... Read more
BetterTouchTool 2.417 - Customize multi-...
BetterTouchTool adds many new, fully customizable gestures to the Magic Mouse, Multi-Touch MacBook trackpad, and Magic Trackpad. These gestures are customizable: Magic Mouse: Pinch in / out (zoom... Read more
Little Snitch 4.0.6 - Alerts you about o...
Little Snitch gives you control over your private outgoing data. Track background activity As soon as your computer connects to the Internet, applications often have permission to send any... Read more
Google Chrome 65.0.3325.181 - Modern and...
Google Chrome is a Web browser by Google, created to be a modern platform for Web pages and applications. It utilizes very fast loading of Web pages and has a V8 engine, which is a custom built... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Construction Simulator 2 reaches its fir...
Construction Simulator 2 debuted iOS and Android devices exactly one year ago, and publisher Astragon is marking the game’s first anniversary with a range of time-limited discounts. It’s been a successful debut for the civil engineering sim, which... | Read more »
All the best games on sale for iPhone an...
This week's list of games on sale for the iPhone and iPad isn't too bad really. There's some gems on here, as well as some games that have had their prices cut low enough that you can look past the rough edges and questionable decisions. [Read... | Read more »
The best games that came out for iPhone...
It's not a huge surprise that there's not a massive influx of new, must-buy games on the App Store this week. After all, GDC is happening, so everyone's busy at parties and networking and dying from a sinister form of jetlag. That said, there are... | Read more »
Destiny meets its mobile match - Everyth...
Shadowgun Legends is the latest game in the Shadowgun series, and it's taking the franchise in some interesting new directions. Which is good news. The even better news is that it's coming out tomorrow, so if you didn't make it into the beta you... | Read more »
How PUBG, Fortnite, and the battle royal...
The history of the battle royale genre isn't a long one. While the nascent parts of the experience have existed ever since players first started killing one another online, it's really only in the past six years that the genre has coalesced into... | Read more »
Around the Empire: What have you missed...
Oh hi nice reader, and thanks for popping in to check out our weekly round-up of all the stuff that you might have missed across the Steel Media network. Yeah, that's right, it's a big ol' network. Obviously 148Apps is the best, but there are some... | Read more »
All the best games on sale for iPhone an...
It might not have been the greatest week for new releases on the App Store, but don't let that get you down, because there are some truly incredible games on sale for iPhone and iPad right now. Seriously, you could buy anything on this list and I... | Read more »
Everything You Need to Know About The Fo...
In just over a week, Epic Games has made a flurry of announcements. First, they revealed that Fortnite—their ultra-popular PUBG competitor—is coming to mobile. This was followed by brief sign-up period for interested beta testers before sending out... | Read more »
The best games that came out for iPhone...
It's not been the best week for games on the App Store. There are a few decent ones here and there, but nothing that's really going to make you throw down what you're doing and run to the nearest WiFi hotspot in order to download it. That's not to... | Read more »
Death Coming (Games)
Death Coming Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: (iTunes) Description: --- Background Story ---You Died. Pure and simple, but death was not the end. You have become an agent of Death: a... | Read more »

Price Scanner via

Thursday roundup of the best 13″ MacBook Pro...
B&H Photo has new 2017 13″ MacBook Pros on sale for up to $200 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax for NY & NJ residents only. Their prices are the lowest available for... Read more
Sale: 9.7-inch 2017 WiFi iPads starting at $2...
B&H Photo has 9.7″ 2017 WiFi Apple iPads on sale for $40 off MSRP for a limited time. Shipping is free, and pay sales tax in NY & NJ only: – 32GB iPad WiFi: $289, $40 off – 128GB iPad WiFi: $... Read more
Roundup of Certified Refurbished iPads, iPad...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 9.7″ WiFi iPads available for $50-$80 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each iPad, and shipping is free: – 9″ 32GB WiFi iPad: $... Read more
Back in stock! Apple’s full line of Certified...
Save $300-$300 on the purchase of a 2017 13″ MacBook Pro today with Certified Refurbished models at Apple. Apple’s refurbished prices are the lowest available for each model from any reseller. A... Read more
Wednesday deals: Huge sale on Apple 15″ MacBo...
Adorama has new 2017 15″ MacBook Pros on sale for $250-$300 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and Adorama charges sales tax in NJ and NY only: – 15″ 2.8GHz Touch Bar MacBook Pro Space Gray (MPTR2LL/A): $... Read more
Apple offers Certified Refurbished Series 3 A...
Apple has Certified Refurbished Series 3 Apple Watch GPS models available for $50, or 13%, off the cost of new models. Apple’s standard 1-year warranty is included, and shipping is free. Numerous... Read more
12″ 1.2GHz Space Gray MacBook on sale for $11...
B&H Photo has the Space Gray 12″ 1.2GHz MacBook on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax for NY & NJ residents only: – 12″ 1.2GHz Space Gray MacBook: $1199 $... Read more
Mac minis available for up to $150 off MSRP w...
Apple has restocked Certified Refurbished Mac minis starting at $419. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each mini, and shipping is free: – 1.4GHz Mac mini: $419 $80 off MSRP – 2.6GHz Mac... Read more
Back in stock: 13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro (Ce...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pros (MD101LL/A) available for $829, or $270 off original MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free: – 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook... Read more
Apple restocks Certified Refurbished 2017 13″...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2017 13″ MacBook Airs available starting at $849. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each MacBook, and shipping is free: – 13″ 1.8GHz/8GB/128GB MacBook Air (... Read more

Jobs Board

Payments Counsel - *Apple* Pay (payments, c...
# Payments Counsel - Apple Pay (payments, credit/debit) Job Number: 112941729 Santa Clara Valley, California, United States Posted: 26-Feb-2018 Weekly Hours: 40.00 Read more
Firmware Engineer - *Apple* Accessories - A...
# Firmware Engineer - Apple Accessories Job Number: 113452350 Santa Clara Valley, California, United States Posted: 28-Feb-2018 Weekly Hours: 40.00 **Job Summary** Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant - Apple (United...
# Apple Solutions Consultant Job Number: 113501424 Norman, Oklahoma, United States Posted: 15-Feb-2018 Weekly Hours: 40.00 **Job Summary** Are you passionate about Read more
*Apple* Inc. Is Look For *Apple* Genius Te...
Apple Inc. Is Look For Apple Genius Technical Customer Service Minneapolis Mn In Minneapolis - Apple , Inc. Apple Genius Technical Customer Service Read more
*Apple* Genius Technical Customer Service Co...
Apple Genius Technical Customer Service Columbus Oh Apple Inc. - Apple , Inc. Apple Genius Technical Customer Service Columbus Oh - Apple , Inc. Job Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.