TweetFollow Us on Twitter

March 94 - THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

WHY WE DO IT

DAVE JOHNSON

[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

Amen.

RECOMMENDED READING

  • 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, dkj@apple.com on the Internet, or 75300,715 on CompuServe.*

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Vivaldi 1.9.818.44 - An advanced browser...
Vivaldi is a browser for our friends. In 1994, two programmers started working on a web browser. Our idea was to make a really fast browser, capable of running on limited hardware, keeping in mind... Read more
Skim 1.4.29 - PDF reader and note-taker...
Skim is a PDF reader and note-taker for OS X. It is designed to help you read and annotate scientific papers in PDF, but is also great for viewing any PDF file. Skim includes many features and has a... Read more
1Password 6.7.1 - Powerful password mana...
1Password is a password manager that uniquely brings you both security and convenience. It is the only program that provides anti-phishing protection and goes beyond password management by adding Web... Read more
FontExplorer X Pro 6.0.2 - Font manageme...
FontExplorer X Pro is optimized for professional use; it's the solution that gives you the power you need to manage all your fonts. Now you can more easily manage, activate and organize your... Read more
VOX 2.8.24 - Music player that supports...
VOX just sounds better! The beauty is in its simplicity, yet behind the minimal exterior lies a powerful music player with a ton of features and support for all audio formats you should ever need.... Read more
OmniPlan 3.7.1 - Robust project manageme...
With OmniPlan, you can create logical, manageable project plans with Gantt charts, schedules, summaries, milestones, and critical paths. Break down the tasks needed to make your project a success,... Read more
Dropbox 24.4.17 - Cloud backup and synch...
Dropbox is an application that creates a special Finder folder that automatically syncs online and between your computers. It allows you to both backup files and keep them up-to-date between systems... Read more
WhatsApp 0.2.4238 - Desktop client for W...
WhatsApp is the desktop client for WhatsApp Messenger, a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. WhatsApp Messenger is available for... Read more
SteerMouse 5.1 - Powerful third-party mo...
SteerMouse is an advanced driver for USB and Bluetooth mice. It also supports Apple Mighty Mouse very well. SteerMouse can assign various functions to buttons that Apple's software does not allow,... Read more
OmniPlan Pro 3.7.1 - Professional-grade...
With OmniPlan Pro, you can create logical, manageable project plans with Gantt charts, schedules, summaries, milestones, and critical paths. Break down the tasks needed to make your project a success... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Fire Emblem Heroes event announces new m...
As reported yesterday, Nintendo was gearing up a live press event for their popular mobile game,Fire Emblem Heroes. While the stream revealed a lot of new things, the event was entirely in Japanese. Luckily we have a rundown of what was announced... | Read more »
Best games we played this week
Another week, another slate of new mobile games. Although there weren't as many big name releases as last week, there were plenty of unique video game titles that came out that's sure to keep you interested over the weekend. Everything from classic... | Read more »
Olli by Tinrocket (Photography)
Olli by Tinrocket 1.0 Device: iOS iPhone Category: Photography Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Get drawn in with Olli by TinrocketOlli instantly turns your everyday moments into hand-drawn art and animations. • Watch... | Read more »
Penarium (Games)
Penarium 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »
Fire Emblem Heroes is way more profitabl...
Profits for Nintendo's mobile game Fire Emblem Heroes are apparently impressive enough to beat out other Nintendo titles likeSuper Mario Run, despite having 10 times fewer downloads. [Read more] | Read more »
Classic series Robot Unicorn Attack 3 no...
The classic Adult Swim browser game, Robot Unicorn Attack, branched off into a series of popular mobile games. Now, the latest entry into the series, Robot Unicorn Attack 3, is available for iOS and Android mobile devices. [Read more] | Read more »
Sudoku Sweeper (Games)
Sudoku Sweeper 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: A minimalist mashup of Minesweeper and Sudoku. Logic puzzle perfection. Every row, column and zone contains a bomb and one of... | Read more »
Under Leaves (Games)
Under Leaves 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: Journey into the forest, the jungle or the depths of the deep blue sea. Find chestnuts for the pigs, a caterpillar for the... | Read more »
Ninja Pizza Girl (Games)
Ninja Pizza Girl 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: In the not-so-distant future, rampart traffic congestion has resulted in only one way to deliver pizzas across town in thirty... | Read more »
SCRAP (Games)
SCRAP 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: That day, for no apparent reason, SCRAP decided to wake up and run. He had to, because his activation was a mistake the "Factory" could... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

13-inch 2.9GHz/256GB Space Gray Touch Bar Mac...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.9GHz/256GB Space Gray Touch Bar MacBook Pro in stock today and on sale for $150 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY & NJ sales tax only: - 13″ 2.9GHz/256GB Touch... Read more
21-inch iMacs on sale for up to $151 off MSRP
B&H Photo has 21″ iMacs on sale for up to $151 off MSRP, each including free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - 21″ 3.1GHz iMac 4K: $1348 $151 off MSRP - 21″ 2.8GHz iMac: $1199.99 $100 off MSRP... Read more
Weekend deal: Up to $420 off new MacBook Pros...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2016 15″ and 13″ MacBook Pros available for $230 to $420 off original MSRP. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: - 15″ 2.6GHz... Read more
Price drop: 15-inch 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pro...
Amazon has dropped their price on 15″ 2.2GHz Retina MacBook Pros (MJLQ2LL/A) to $1709.99 including free shipping. Their price is $290 off MSRP for this model. Note that stock may sell out quickly at... Read more
2.8GHz Mac mini on sale for $899, save $100
B&H Photo has the 2.8GHz Mac mini (model number MGEQ2LL/A) on sale for $899 including free shipping plus NY & NJ sales tax only. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Read more
Check Apple prices on any device with the iTr...
MacPrices is proud to offer readers a free iOS app (iPhones, iPads, & iPod touch) and Android app (Google Play and Amazon App Store) called iTracx, which allows you to glance at today’s lowest... Read more
New System Clock for macOS by B-Eng Now Avail...
Fehraltorf, Switzerland based B-Eng has announced the release and immediate availability of System Clock, the company’s new system monitor and information app developed exclusively for macOS. System... Read more
DEVONtechnologies Celebrates 15th Anniversary...
DEVONtechnologies celebrates its 15th company anniversary with a 30% discount on all its software products from May 1st through 5th, 2017. In spring 2002, DEVONtechnologies opened its website and... Read more
WaterField Designs Invites Customers to Help...
San Francisco based WaterField Designs invites customers and air travelers to participate in developing the next generation in-flight travel case, the Air Porter. Frustrated with limited legroom,... Read more
Save up to $260 with Apple refurbished 12-inc...
Apple has Certified Refurbished 2016 12″ Retina MacBooks available for $200-$260 off MSRP. Apple will include a standard one-year warranty with each MacBook, and shipping is free. The following... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Mobile Master - Best Buy (United Sta...
**501505BR** **Job Title:** Apple Mobile Master **Location Number:** 000849-Gurnee-Store **Job Description:** **What does a Best Buy Apple Mobile Master do?** At Read more
Best Buy *Apple* Computing Master - Best Bu...
**498428BR** **Job Title:** Best Buy Apple Computing Master **Location Number:** 000293-Rockville-Store **Job Description:** **What does a Best Buy Apple Read more
*Apple* Mac Computer Technician - GeekHampto...
…complex computer issues over the phone and in person? GeekHampton, Long Island's Apple Premium Service Provider, is looking for you! Come work with our crew Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions- Chicago...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
*Apple* Systems Engineer - California Polyte...
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo Apple Systems Engineer Department: ITS - Customer & Tech Support (134900) College/Division: Academic Affairs Salary Range: Position Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.