Zen and the Art of Programming


As a teacher of programming, I come across a lot of new developers that are just like I was earlier in my career. They see software projects as finite things. Something to be built and finished. There are deadlines. There are so many more projects. This mindset leads to a lot of stress and an overwhelmed feeling. How can I get all of the functionality built? It is going to take forever, and I just spent 3 hours on a simple bug that should have taken 5 minutes.

Relax. Software programs are not a finite thing you build and finish. They are more like a living organism that grows and changes over time. They are never done growing, and unlike a real living being, they rarely die. I have software I wrote over 20 years ago still in production. Think of Microsoft Word. A word processing program that has been around since the 80’s. The first version came out in 1983. It is still growing and evolving. Microsoft still releases new versions.

When you view a software system as a living being that grows and evolves it changes your whole mindset. It is not about completing the project. It is about finishing this phase. What doesn’t make phase 1 can come in phase 2. On a side note, you see this evolution in the Software development lifecycle models. The industry used to use the classic Waterfall method. You gather all of the requirements, build every possible feature and then release the product. Done. Finish. Well this didn’t work so well so the industry moved to Agile, where you are never finished. You just release new features every couple weeks. To now, Devops. Where you continuously build, test, and deploy. It is the industry progression of viewing software as a finite object that is built to a living organism that is fed and maintained on a daily basis.

As a developer the sooner you get to this mindset the better. I find it much more relaxing and sustainable. No longer do you need to stress about getting all of the features built and finished. You just focus on today and what feature you want to add today. Each day you make the system better. One day at a time. Progress not perfection. Everyday when you go home you know you software system is better than the day before. Next thing you know, you look back a few months later and it is amazing how many features and pieces of functionality have been added. It is also amazing, given the constant changes in technology and business, how many new features you need to add. All in due time. One day at a time.

I recently taught a beginner C# class. It was 4 weeks long on Tuesday and Thursday nights for 3 hours with one Saturday. I told the students the first night that we would build a full functioning card game application that could play Blackjack, Poker, and War by the end of the class and it would include multiple players and games and remember a players game history. They thought I was kidding. They thought it a noble effort but not something we could actually do. After all they were new to programming and C#. But each day we bit off a new piece of the pie and slower but surely we whittled away. I told them all along not to focus on the whole effort or all the things we needed to do. Each night just focus on the piece we were doing that night. I even told them that maybe we won’t finish it. Maybe it isn’t reasonable. Who cares if we finish. It’s the journey not the destination. Enjoy the ride. Have fun. Focus on just what we need to do today. If we don’t finish today we’ll finish the next class. No worries. But in the end we did finish at least the initial functionality of the games(Remember programs are never finished. We can always add more to it). And they did enjoy it. They weren’t overwhelmed and stressed by the effort. They enjoyed the journey knowing that if we didn’t finish tonight we would at least make it better tonight. They left the class with a working program but also many more changes they can build to continuously grow and evolve the system.

Since I started viewing software as a living system that grows and evolves everyday. I have learned to enjoy the art of programming much more. Everyday is spent teaching, growing, and learning as I evolve along with the system I am building. It is a journey we are traveling together.

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