Programming’s dirty word

Us programmers tend to be a logical, pragmatic bunch. We’re good at choosing the option that is strictly speaking the most practical. And yet, I have yet to hear a programmer ask the question “Will anyone want to work with this?”

And there’s the dirty word: want. Many times, we get so caught up in finding the way that will be the most efficient that we forget why we became programmers. I don’t know about you, the reader, but I became a programmer because it’s fun. The moment I stop enjoying what I do is the moment I stop being a programmer and start being a paid coding monkey.

And here’s the kicker: this rabid focus that we have on the practical isn’t practical. It’s quite idealistic in fact. Looking back, the best projects that I’ve completed aren’t the ones where I had an easy, efficient way out. In fact, they’re frequently projects where I get to try something new out or get my hands dirty discovering better ways to solve old problems. In short, as long as you don’t get too distracted from the task at hand, wants are practical.

Now, I already know what counterarguments I’m going to receive from this post, so let me take a moment to address them:

  • You can’t always get what you want. And you would be absolutely right to make this point. No matter what you do, you’re always going to run into a situation where you have to do something you don’t want to do. However, you don’t completely abandon the idea of life just because you’re going to die at some point. Instead, you focus on living as long and enjoyable a life as you can.
  • You’re putting your own desires ahead of your team’s. I’m certainly not arguing that any individual programmer needs to be able to sabotage the rest of the team just because they want something. It is extremely important that you take what others want into consideration in addition to what you want.
  • Programmers need to focus on building a product, not the code. This sounds like something a Product Manager or startup founder would say. And I would agree with it to a certain point. It’s important to work on a product that’s important to you. However, I’m not a Product Manager or startup founder. I’m a programmer, and product design really makes up about 10% of my overall job (and that’s being generous). The rest of that time is spent coding. And programmers shouldn’t have to apologize for wanting to make that time as pleasant as possible.
  • You’re not being pragmatic. You’re right, I’m not being completely pragmatic, and neither should you. The ideal solution is one that is pragmatic and enjoyable. Given a choice between a pragmatic solution and fun one, you should always choose the pragmatic one. After all, a fun but completely impractical idea will never see the light of day. However, things are rarely so black and white. You have to learn to balance tradeoffs. Such as the tradeoff between practicality and enjoyment.

I suppose the main thing that I’m trying to say here is that what you want is an important consideration in addition to what you need (despite what the Rolling Stones would have you believe).