Programmers are optimists

Programming: programmers_are_optimistsProgrammers are the most optimistic bunch of people I have ever come across. Ask us how long something will take and chances are our estimates will be way off.

It’s not because we hate you. It’s not because we didn’t know any better, either. We’re just very optimistic about everything. The project, our skills, the tech, your specs, the unknown unknowns …

Especially the unknown unknowns are a big problem – it’s impossible to predict everything that might go wrong. The variables are just too many.

Right now it looks like we can do This ™ in an hour, but a weirdness or twenty and suddenly it’s taking a whole day.

As programmers we assume the least complications, even when multiplying by Pi.

But there’s another profession that gives a lot of predictions in the face of uncertainty – doctors. When a doctor gets their estimates wrong, people are often delighted. What?

Let me tell you a tale of two estimates – a conservative and a programmer estimate.

A tale of two estimates


Last Friday I messed up my shoulder, more specifically that tiny little joint between my clavicle and shoulder. I was long boarding, did something wrong and landed on the tarmac. Hard.

In the morning I had to use my left hand to eat breakfast. Couldn’t even pick up a spoon.

At the ER the doctors told me that hey, the bones and joint seem fine (no dislocation etc.), but I must have messed up my tendons something bad. What I can expect is three weeks of pain and problems. “Just take some painkillers if it gets too bad”, they said.

Today, 6 days later, my shoulder is already at 90%. Clenching my teeth just a little, I could do 60 of my usual 150 pushups this morning. Even jumping rope wasn’t much of an issue. Yesterday I could even carry a four kilogram Longboard in my right arm for extended periods of time.

In a day or two I will be fully healed, but essentially the doctor’s estimate was off by almost a factor of 3. And I couldn’t be happier, it’s brightened my whole day up!

A programmer’s estimate

I’m working on a web page segmentation algorithm. The idea is to take a website and decide which parts are headers, sidebars and so on. It’s an interesting problem since everyone else is only concerned with extracting the main juicy content.

The algorithm finally started working earlier this week, just a matter of merging the results back into the original HTML so they can be useful.

I’ll have it by Friday morning, I said.

I mean how hard can it be? I’m just using a language I hate (java), am not experienced with, a paradigm I dislike and try to avoid, and a library I only started poking at two weeks ago.

Surely I can do a task I don’t fully understand by Friday morning! It’s the estimate that popped into my mind when I tried to pull something out of my ears, so it must be correct. I’ve been a programmer for ages!

Nope, didn’t get it done.

Turns out I didn’t understand the object hierarchy of boiler pipe – took me many hours just to extend the relevant functions of a particular object.

Then I found out the HTML parser I’m using is linear, so there is no clear way of deciding which child nodes belong to what parent node.

In the end I spent all of my time just figuring out how to add the algorithm’s results to the HTML in the crudest way possible – add a number in front of every node in the DOM.

Well oops.

Programmers are optimists


Whenever you talk to a programmer, just remember, they are an optimistic bunch. Yes, even the most disheartened scruffy old programmer is insanely optimistic. We are the kind of person who:

  • Dives into a project with a spec that will change
  • Grabs a bunch of unknown tools, applies them to an unknown domain … and wins
  • Lies in a different world with every new project
  • Changes all their tools every couple of years

Anyone who isn’t an optimist just can’t survive as a programmer.

How many other professions can say that about themselves?


Programmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8 comments

comment deleted
dvaruh
So, the programmers don't need afraid Alzheimer disease))
jviaches
We (programmers) have a bunch of others «disease» to worry about :)
comment deleted
dvaruh
))) It's better not to know about them))).
jviaches
It is clear for me that article written with humorous sub-context, although reality is more complicated. As programmer myself i have encountered with a lot of pressure on a daily basis, which let's say not exactly contribute to optimistic mode.

But IMHO, its very important always be optimistic not just as a programmer but as a person as well :)
Mike
I definitely agree with you! I think that the daily pressures are so regular that after some period of time the programmers which have enough experience are finding some tools like optimism in order to survive. And this tools can be anything, depends on personality. For someone it can be listening to the some style of music and etc.
jviaches
I tend to agree with you :)

When i starting to get sad or stressed feeling, my tool is walking or running. It helps me sometimes to completely free my mind, and some time it helps me to focus myself on specific points, depends of situation.

Moreover, at my opinion there is thin parallel between programmer and some worker, who use his hands to get done things. Programmer use his mind instead, and after all day long you feel so tired, like you made wall of bricks, connected by some specific logic with each other.

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