A Breed Apart24 Nov 2010
A wise man once said “beware of software developers for they are very chivalrous and will need to find a dragon to slay”. If you spend as much time as we have around programmers you will know what he meant. Back in the eighties, a smart and eager young COBOL programmer became the butt of many a joke when, entirely unbidden, he wrote some assembler code to read and write records. This he claimed was more efficient than using the equivalent COBOL statements. Now it does not matter if you are technical or not, suffice to say this is the equivalent of putting a small motor in your wall with a gyroscope attached in order to keep your pictures level when you hang them; it might work but it is complete overkill and totally unnecessary. He must have looked at the statements READ RECORD and WRITE RECORD and thought, “nah, nowhere near challenging enough, I’ll find out what that does and then improve on it (somehow)”.
The knowledge that this type of behaviour is prevalent amongst the technically gifted is what allows urban legends such as the NASA space pen to flourish. This apocryphal story states that while America spent millions developing a pen that would write in zero-gravity space, the Russians simply used pencils. It is a pretty outrageous slur on NASA’s competence but many of us are prepared to believe it because we just know that huge sums of money are wasted on extravagant technical wizardry to address problems that have a simple, everyday solution.
When profit-driven business leaders, customer-focused sales executives and pragmatic, non-technical Project Managers face off with overly inventive developers there is always a capacity for misunderstanding and distrust. Sometimes we can laugh at these Quixotic acts of geek chivalry but more often than not we are frustrated and annoyed by them. We shouldn’t be. The mistake that those who mock and scorn are making is to assume that the world works better if only everyone thought like them. Clearly it would be a general disaster of Orwellian proportions if we were all obsessed with profits, brand identity and timelines. If we lived in a world where nobody really cared to understand how the TV actually worked who would invent the most brilliant labour-saving device known to man: the remote control?
All forms of creativity left unchecked produces bizarre results. We have only to look at the recent credit crisis to see that financial gurus need checks and balances. Marketing disasters are everywhere. Small fortunes are spent on sales and advertising that produce near zero returns and in some cases are positively harmful to brand identity. Every year, hundreds of projects run by highly-trained, pragmatic and sensible project managers, overrun by millions. In this context, the developer’s equivalent of writing his own linked list with binary chop algorithm, when the simple statement SEARCH has already been provided by the tool vendor, is a small price to pay for genius on tap.
And what genius! The next time you might be tempted to poke fun at software developers just remember that every word you read on this website, every phone call you make, every car you drive, every show you watch, every plane you fly in, every-just-about-everything has been studied, mastered and improved by this special breed, who some people will just never understand.