How To Become a Better Programmer by Not Programming

January 29, 2007

Last year in Programmers as Human Beings, I mentioned that I was reading Programmers At Work. It's a great collection of interviews with famous programmers circa 1986. All the interviews are worth reading, but the interview with Bill Gates has one particular answer that cuts to the bone:

Does accumulating experience through the years necessarily make programming easier?

Bill Gates: No. I think after the first three or four years, it's pretty cast in concrete whether you're a good programmer or not. After a few more years, you may know more about managing large projects and personalities, but after three or four years, it's clear what you're going to be. There's no one at Microsoft who was just kind of mediocre for a couple of years, and then just out of the blue started optimizing everything in sight. I can talk to somebody about a program that he's written and know right away whether he's really a good programmer.

We already know there's a vast divide between those who can program and those who cannot.

But the dirty little secret of the software development industry is that this is also true even for people who can program: there's a vast divide between good developers and mediocre developers. A mediocre developer can program his or her heart out for four years, but that won't magically transform them into a good developer. And the good developers always seem to have a natural knack for the stuff from the very beginning.

I agree with Bill. From what I've seen, there's just no crossing the skill chasm as a software developer. You've either got it, or you don't. No amount of putting your nose to the grindstone will change that. But if you accept that premise, it also presents us with a paradox: if experience doesn't make you a better programmer, what does? Are our skill levels written in stone? Is it impossible to become a better programmer?

To answer that question, you have to consider the obsessive nature of programming itself. Good developers are good at programming. Really good at programming. You might even say fanatically good. If they're anything like me, they've spent nearly every waking moment in front of a computer for most of their lives. And naturally, they get better at it over time. Competent software developers have already mastered the skill of programming, which puts them in a very select club. But if you're already in the 97th percentile for programming aptitude, what difference does a few more percentile points really make in the big scheme of things?

The older I get, the more I believe that the only way to become a better programmer is by not programming. You have to come up for air, put down the compiler for a moment, and take stock of what you're really doing. Code is important, but it's a small part of the overall process.

This piece in Design Observer offers a nice bit of related advice:

Over the years, I came to realize that my best work has always involved subjects that interested me, or -- even better -- subjects about which I've become interested, and even passionate about, through the very process of doing design work. I believe I'm still passionate about graphic design. But the great thing about graphic design is that it is almost always about something else. Corporate law. Professional football. Art. Politics. Robert Wilson. And if I can't get excited about whatever that something else is, I really have trouble doing a good work as a designer. To me, the conclusion is inexcapable: the more things you're interested in, the better your work will be.

Passion for coding is a wonderful thing. But it's all too easy to mindlessly, reflexively entrench yourself deeper and deeper into a skill that you've already proven yourself more than capable at many times over. To truly become a better programmer, you have to cultivate passion for everything else that goes on around the programming.

Bill Gates, in a 2005 interview, follows up in spirit to his 1986 remarks:

The nature of these jobs is not just closing your door and doing coding, and it's easy to get that fact out. The greatest missing skill is somebody who's both good at understanding the engineering and who has good relationships with the hard-core engineers, and bridges that to working with the customers and the marketing and things like that. And so that sort of engineering management career track, even amongst all the people we have, we still fall short of finding people who want to do that, and so we often have to push people into it.

I'd love to have people who come to these jobs wanting to think of it as an exercise in people management and people dynamics, as well as the basic engineering skills. That would be absolutely amazing.

And we can promise those people within two years of starting that career most of what they're doing won't be coding, because there are many career paths, say, within that Microsoft Office group where you're part of creating this amazing product, you get to see how people use it, you get to then spend two years, build another version, and really change the productivity in this very deep way, take some big bets on what you're doing and do some things that are just responsive to what that customer wants.

You won't-- you cannot -- become a better programmer through sheer force of programming alone. You can only complement and enhance your existing programming skills by branching out. Learn about your users. Learn about the industry. Learn about your business.

The more things you are interested in, the better your work will be.

Posted by Jeff Atwood



Computer Viruses? What really is it?

written by Roderick Hames

One might think of a computer virus as a tiny computer program designed to perform mischief. Most computer users have heard about computer viruses. A computer virus is the result of a destructive program that someone has written and placed inside a computer program, which unsuspecting people then place in their computer system.

Some viruses can erase all the information from the place where it's stored on the computer's hard disk. But each virus is different. Some display strange messages on your computer screen; others make small changes in your computer programs.

Where do these viruses come from? They certainly don't float around in the air like some human viruses. Instead, like any other computer program, a human must create them.

Why do people create them? It's hard to say. Some people create these programs out of meanness to get even. While others create them just as a challenge. Why do you thing people create these very destructive programs? How does your computer get a virus? Almost exactly the way humans do. The computer gets exposed to one. Well, its not quiet that easy.

Many people get contaminated computer programs by trading programs with other people. Others get contaminated computer programs through the use of modems, which allow computers to communicate over telephone lines (the Internet)

Most of the time, programs that arrive by modem or a trade are perfectly safe to use. However, you do stand a chance of getting a program that has been tampered with. Here a computer program virus is hiding inside the normal program. Many computer programs that are traded were copied illegally.

When this program enters your computer through your input device, it hides in your computer's memory and starts to duplicate itself like a disease. When you save your data, you also save the virus. Slowly but surely, the virus crowds out your data and causes major system problems.

The virus can't affect the computer's ROM (Read Only Memory), but it can affect RAM (Random Access Memory) and your computer disks. When your shut off your computer a virus that has been picked up will be lost, just like any other memory that is held in RAM.

If the virus is on your disk or hard drive, it will return to the computer when you use the program again. If you switch from one program to another without shutting down the machine, the virus will attach itself to the new program. In this way, it can slowly infect all your programs before you know that it exists. Today millions of dollars are being spent to rid and protect computer systems from these virus programs.

Commercial and shareware programs have been created with the sole purpose of detecting and fixing suspect programs that might be viruses infected. These detection programs should be ran when any disk is put into your disk drive or every time your computer is first started up each day to scan the computer's hard drive.

Directions: Answer the following questions in your own words based on the following article you have just read


1. What is a computer virus? _____________________________________________
2. What are some of the things that viruses can do? ______________________________________
3. Where do viruses come from? _____________________________________________
4. Why do people create viruses? _____________________________________________
5. How do computers acquire viruses? _____________________________________________
6. Can a virus affect the ROM of a computer?__________________________________________

7. What can be done to avoid getting a computer virus?__________________________________

8. What can be done when someone knows they have a virus? _____________________________



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