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Last week an article that touched on a popular stereotype of the nocturnal programmer was published at Business Insider. Articles like this are always popping up from time to time and they tend to cause some controversy among programming communities–probably because one programmer’s dream work environment is another’s distracting hell.
I wish I had some deep insight into why the internet is overrun with articles like this about what makes for a productive programmer. I think simply that the nature of writing software is not well understood. What we do is tough to categorize. It’s not like classical engineering, we’re not calculating the tensile properties of metals and then building a bridge or an airplane. It’s not art. Maybe programming is a craft.
Articles like this that chase after some enigmatic insight into the secret of programmer productivity remind me of a lot of specious advice for fighting writer’s block. Lock yourself in a room, naked, with nothing but a typewriter. Pay someone to slap you when you stop writing. Whenever I come across this kind of advice I’m reminded of this canonical Chuck Close quote:
“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”
I imagine most anecdotal accounts of productivity tricks boil down to this: “this is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other.”
A bunch of us in the NYC office have a goal to get more blog posts under our belt this year. (Why, you ask?) To that end, we’ve begun an “iron blogger” group this month. The concept is simple: you buy in with twenty bucks and if you write a blog post by the deadline, you get it back. If you don’t, your cash goes to the group. There’s more than just a small financial incentive, though; there’s social pressure, but also the excuse to just ship whatever half formed ideas you have in your drafts folder (he laughed, nervously.) The point is to write–to write poorly, even!–to screw up and miss deadlines and live to write again. In other words, the purpose of iron blogger is to encourage us to keep putting one foot in front of the other.