Chasing Rabbits

Written by on Feb 21 2008

There are a lot of people who are really good programmers who never reach that “top .1%,” or whatever, level. Of late I have been thinking of one of the things that sets the best programmers apart: Discernment. I’m not talking about discerning a good technology from a bad one, but rather the ability to discern a good choice from a bad one. To be able to see the consequences of this path versus that one. In short, to know which rabbits to chase.

When writing software we face a million billion choices every day. Having the talent to make good choices is crucial to being productive. It’s the reason we can launch a product in seven hours.

Here is an example: Recently, one of my guys was refactoring some bad controller code we inherited. He was very excited to show me how he had abstracted and cleaned some of the bad controller code into a library so all of the controllers could call these methods instead of duplicating this bad code all over the place. At first glance it was clear to me that this abstraction was the beginnings of a new library that would be almost identical to Make Resourceful. Once I showed him where his path was leading he agreed that this was probably not the right time to write a Make Resourceful clone, especially when what was really called for was just making the bad code proper, not writing a support structure for it. This reminds me of what Malcom Gladwell was talking about in Blink: The ability to know instantly. (Perhaps to know truth instantly.)

I’m not talking about syntax here. Obie Fernandez and I have fairly different coding styles. He prefers to have the code be more explicit and readable while I prefer my code to be more terse and succinct. Neither is right or wrong, and neither is the reason we are both able to look at a problem and immediately prune it to its core and see clearly where the different paths take us.

This isn’t just true of code, I have seen Allan do the same thing with design. We were working with a designer who was very headstrong and really thought Allan was lacking in something (I’ll save the “why were you working with someone like that” story for another time). This person was doing the html/css for a website and using some popular grid-css-template-thing (I believe that is the technical term for it). When Allan first looked at the code, he just started ripping parts out, not because it was bad in and of itself, but because it was clear that was way too complicated. Using this framework did not buy the simplicity and maintainability of what has come to be known as “The Allan Way™.” (It is amazing to watch Allan take a 7000 line css file and without changing the way the site looks, trim the file to 300 lines.) The other designer made a fuss until Allan was done. Once he saw the difference, he was converted to “The Allan Way™.”

It’s easy to say, “that is just a product of experience.” And although experience certainly plays a part, I think it goes way beyond that. I think this discernment might also be called wisdom. Wisdom basically boils down to how well can you predict the future. When one approaches the wise old sage, the sage immediately knows the outcome of all the paths presented.

So how does one get this discernment/wisdom? I am not sure. I do believe one can learn it, and I think one of the requirements is to know that that is what one is trying to learn. When you play chess, do you only think about your strategy, or do you constantly think “why did my opponent make that move?” Acquiring wisdom might require applying that mental discipline to every part of life: Why did my wife/boss/client/adversary say that? Was it planned or just careless? How does my action affect others? And not just in dealing with others: If I do this, what will I do next? And then what? What paths am I forcing myself into later, if I make this choice now? How deep is this rabbit hole?

Maybe this is the difference between success and mediocrity, between satisfaction and melancholy. Or maybe not.


Hi I'm Steven,

I wrote the article you're reading... I lead the developers, write music, used to race motorcycles, and help clients find the right features to build on their product.

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