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

Duplicate Annihilator 5.7.5 - Find and d...
Duplicate Annihilator takes on the time-consuming task of comparing the images in your iPhoto library using effective algorithms to make sure that no duplicate escapes. Duplicate Annihilator... Read more
BusyContacts 1.0.2 - Fast, efficient con...
BusyContacts is a contact manager for OS X that makes creating, finding, and managing contacts faster and more efficient. It brings to contact management the same power, flexibility, and sharing... Read more
Capture One Pro 8.2.0.82 - RAW workflow...
Capture One Pro 8 is a professional RAW converter offering you ultimate image quality with accurate colors and incredible detail from more than 300 high-end cameras -- straight out of the box. It... Read more
Backblaze 4.0.0.872 - Online backup serv...
Backblaze is an online backup service designed from the ground-up for the Mac.With unlimited storage available for $5 per month, as well as a free 15-day trial, peace of mind is within reach with... Read more
Little Snitch 3.5.2 - 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
Monolingual 1.6.4 - Remove unwanted OS X...
Monolingual is a program for removing unnecesary language resources from OS X, in order to reclaim several hundred megabytes of disk space. If you use your computer in only one (human) language, you... Read more
CleanApp 5.0 - Application deinstaller a...
CleanApp is an application deinstaller and archiver.... Your hard drive gets fuller day by day, but do you know why? CleanApp 5 provides you with insights how to reclaim disk space. There are... Read more
Fantastical 2.0 - Create calendar events...
Fantastical is the Mac calendar you'll actually enjoy using. Creating an event with Fantastical is quick, easy, and fun: Open Fantastical with a single click or keystroke Type in your event details... Read more
Cocktail 8.2 - General maintenance and o...
Cocktail is a general purpose utility for OS X that lets you clean, repair and optimize your Mac. It is a powerful digital toolset that helps hundreds of thousands of Mac users around the world get... Read more
Direct Mail 4.0.4 - Create and send grea...
Direct Mail is an easy-to-use, fully-featured email marketing app purpose-built for OS X. It lets you create and send great looking email campaigns. Start your newsletter by selecting from a gallery... Read more

These are All the Apple Watch Apps and G...
The Apple Watch is less than a month from hitting store shelves, and once you get your hands on it you're probably going to want some apps and games to install. Fear not! We've compiled a list of all the Apple Watch apps and games we've been able to... | Read more »
Appy to Have Known You - Lee Hamlet Look...
Being at 148Apps these past 2 years has been an awesome experience that has taught me a great deal, and working with such a great team has been a privilege. Thank you to Rob Rich, and to both Rob LeFebvre and Jeff Scott before him, for helping me... | Read more »
Hands-On With Allstar Heroes - A Promisi...
Let’s get this out of the way quickly. Allstar Heroes looks a lot like a certain other recent action RPG release, but it turns out that while it’s not yet available here, Allstar Heroes has been around for much longer than that other title. Now that... | Read more »
Macho Man and Steve Austin Join the Rank...
WWE Immortals, by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and WWE, has gotten a superstar update. You'll now have access to Macho Man Randy Savage and Steve Austin. Both characters have two different versions: Macho Man Randy Savage Renegade or Macho... | Read more »
Fearless Fantasy is Fantastic for the iF...
I actually had my first look at Fearless Fantasy last year at E3, but it was on a PC so there wasn't much for me to talk about. But now that I've been able to play with a pre-release version of the iOS build, there's quite a bit for me to talk... | Read more »
MLB Manager 2015 (Games)
MLB Manager 2015 5.0.14 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 5.0.14 (iTunes) Description: Guide your favorite MLB franchise to glory! MLB Manager 2015, officially licensed by MLB.com and based on the award-... | Read more »
Breath of Light (Games)
Breath of Light 1.0.1421 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0.1421 (iTunes) Description: Hold a quiet moment. Breath of Light is a meditative and beautiful puzzle game with a hypnotic soundtrack by... | Read more »
WWE WrestleMania Tags into the App Store
Are You ready to rumble? The official WWE WrestleMania app, by World Wrestling Entertainment, is now available. Now you can get all your WrestleMania info in one place before anyone else. The app offers details on superstar signings, interactive... | Read more »
Bio Inc's New Expansion is Infectin...
Bio Inc., by DryGin Studios, is the real time strategy game where you infect a human body with the worst virus your evil brain can design. Recently, the game was updated to add a whole lot of new features. Now you can play the new “Lethal”... | Read more »
The Monocular Minion is Here! Despicable...
Despicable Me: Minion Rush, by Gameloft, is introducing a new runner to the mix in their latest update. Now you can play as Carl, the prankster minion. Carl has a few new abilities to play with, including running at a higher speed from the start.... | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro (refurbished) avai...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pros available for $829, or $270 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free: - 13″ 2.... Read more
Save up to $80 on iPad Air 2s, NY tax only, f...
 B&H Photo has iPad Air 2s on sale for $80 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - 16GB iPad Air 2 WiFi: $469.99 $30 off - 64GB iPad Air 2 WiFi: $549.99 $50 off - 128GB iPad... Read more
iMacs on sale for up to $205 off MSRP
B&H Photo has 21″ and 27″ iMacs on sale for up to $205 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - 21″ 1.4GHz iMac: $1019 $80 off - 21″ 2.7GHz iMac: $1189 $110 off - 21″ 2.9GHz... Read more
Färbe Technik Offers iPhone Battery Charge LI...
Färbe Technik, which manufactures and markets of mobile accessories for Apple, Blackberry and Samsung mobile devices, is offering tips on how to keep your iPhone charged while in the field: •... Read more
Electronic Recyclers International CEO Urges...
Citing a recent story on CNBC about concerns some security professionals have about the forthcoming Apple Watch, John Shegerian, Chairman and CEO of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI), the... Read more
Save up to $380 with Apple refurbished iMacs
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished iMacs available for up to $380 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free: - 27″ 3.5GHz 5K iMac – $2119 $... Read more
Mac minis on sale for up to $75 off, starting...
MacMall has Mac minis on sale for up to $75 off MSRP including free shipping. Their prices are the lowest available for these models from any reseller: - 1.4GHz Mac mini: $459.99 $40 off - 2.6GHz Mac... Read more
College Student Deals: Additional $50 off Mac...
Take an additional $50 off all MacBooks and iMacs at Best Buy Online with their College Students Deals Savings, valid through April 11, 2015. Anyone with a valid .EDU email address can take advantage... Read more
Mac Pros on sale for up to $260 off MSRP
B&H Photo has Mac Pros on sale for up to $260 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges sales tax in NY only: - 3.7GHz 4-core Mac Pro: $2799, $200 off MSRP - 3.5GHz 6-core Mac Pro: $3719.99... Read more
13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $100 o...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pro on sale for $999 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Read more

Jobs Board

DevOps Software Engineer - *Apple* Pay, iOS...
**Job Summary** Imagine what you could do here. At Apple , great ideas have a way of becoming great products, services, and customer experiences very quickly. Bring Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
Sr. Technical Services Consultant, *Apple*...
**Job Summary** Apple Professional Services (APS) has an opening for a senior technical position that contributes to Apple 's efforts for strategic and transactional Read more
Lead *Apple* Solutions Consultant - Retail...
**Job Summary** Job Summary The Lead ASC is an Apple employee who serves as the Apple business manager and influencer in a hyper-business critical Reseller's store Read more
*Apple* Pay - Site Reliability Engineer - Ap...
**Job Summary** Imagine what you could do here. At Apple , great ideas have a way of becoming great products, services, and customer experiences very quickly. Bring Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.