Sunday, 8 October 2017

Everything sucks. And that's OK.

(Edit: whilst the physical writing of this article was prompted by frustrating interactions with another person, the primary goal is not, in any way, an attack on that person. On the contrary, I was just reminded that I would have learned so much more, so much quicker if I had adopted this mindset a decade-and-a-half ago -- and I guess that my frustration is largely my own fault: I thought that the people around me with higher qualifications and longer time in the industry had already accepted what appears to be quite obvious to me now. I'm also well aware that my communication skills, especially when delivering unfavorable opinions, could do with much improvement. It's a journey.)

There is no perfect code, no perfect language, no perfect framework or methodology. Everything is, in some way, flawed.

This realization can be liberating -- when you accept that everything is flawed in some way, it puts aside petty arguments about the best language, editor, IDE, framework, database -- whatever some zealot is pedaling as being the ultimate solution to your problems. It also illuminates the need for all of the different options out there -- new programming languages are born sometimes on a lark, but often because the creator wanted to express themselves and their logical intent better than they could with the languages that they knew. Or perhaps they wanted to remove some of the complexity associated with common tasks (such as memory allocation and freeing or asynchronous logic). Whatever the reason, there is (usually) a valid one.

The same can be said for frameworks, database, libraries -- you name it. Yes, even the precious pearls that you've hand-crafted into existence. 

In fact, especially those.

We can be blind to the imperfections in our own creations, sometimes it's just ego in the way. Sometimes it's just a blind spot. Sometimes it's because we tie our own self-value to the things we create.

"You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis."

For the few that didn't recognize the above, it was uttered by Tyler Durden from the cult classic Fight Club. There are many highlights one could pick from that movie, but this one has been on my mind recently. It refers to how people define themselves by their possessions, finding their identity in material items which are, ultimately, transient.

Much like how we're transient, ultimately unimportant in the grand scale of space and time that surrounds us. Like our possessions, we're just star stuff, on loan from the universe whilst we experience a tiny fraction of it.

I'd like to add another item to the list above:

You are not the code you have written.

This may be difficult to digest. It may stick in your throat, but some freedom comes in accepting this.

As a developer, you have to be continually learning, continually improving, just to remain marginally relevant in the vast expanse of languages, technologies, frameworks, companies and problems in the virtual sea in which our tiny domains float. If you're not learning, you're left behind the curve. Stagnation is a slow death which can be escaped by shaking up your entire world (eg forcing learning by hopping to a new company) or embraced by simply accepting it as your fate as you move into management, doomed to observe others actually living out their passions as they create new things and you report on it. From creator to observer. You may be able to balance this for a while, you may even have the satisfaction of moving the pieces on the board, but you've given up something of yourself, some part of your creator spirit. You can still learn here -- but you can also survive just fine as you are.

Or at least that's how it looks from the outside. And that's pretty-much how I've heard it described from the inside. I wouldn't know, personally. I'm too afraid to try. I like making things.

This journey of constant learning and improvement probably applies to other professions, especially those requiring some level of creativity and craftsmanship from the member. You either evolve to continue creating or your fade away into obscurity.

And if you are passionate about what you're doing, if you are continually learning, continually hungry to be better at what you do, continually looking for ways to evolve your thought processes and code, then inevitably, you have to look back on your creations of the past and feel...


Often I can add other emotions to the mix: embarrassed, appalled, even loathing. But at the very least, looking back on something you've created, you should be able to see how much better you'd be able to do it now. This doesn't mean that your past creations have no value -- especially if they are actually useful and in use. It just means that a natural part of continual evolution is the realization that everything you've ever done, everything you ever will do, given enough distance of time, upon reflection, sucks.

It starts when you recognize that code you wrote a decade ago sucks. It grows as you realize that code you wrote 5 years, even 2 years ago sucks. It crescendos as you realize that the code you wrote 6 months ago sucks -- indeed, even the code you wrote a fortnight ago could be done better with what you've learned in the last sprint. 

It's not a bad thing. The realization allows you to divorce your self-worth from your creations. If anything, you could glean some of your identity from the improvements you've been able to make throughout your career. Because, if you realize that your past creations, in some way or another, all suck, if you realize that this truth will come to pass for your current and future creations, then you have to also come to conclusion that realizing deficiencies in your past accomplishments highlights your own personal evolution.

If you look back over your past code and you don't feel some kind of disappointment, if you can't point out the flaws in your prior works, then I'd have to conclude that you're either stagnating or you're deluding yourself -- perhaps out of pride, perhaps because you've attached your self-worth to the creations you've made. Neither is a good place to be -- you're either becoming irrelevant or you're unteachable and you will become irrelevant.

If you can come to accept this as truth, it also means that you can accept criticism with valid reasoning as an opportunity to learn instead of an attack on your character. 

I watched a video where the speaker posits that code has two audiences: the compiler and your co-workers. The compiler doesn't care about style or readability. The compiler simply cares about syntactical correctness. I've tended to take this a little further with the mantra:

Code is for co-workers, not compilers.

I can't claim to be the original author -- but I also can't remember where I read it. In this case, it does boil down to a simple truth: if your code is difficult for someone else to extend and maintain, it may not be the sparkling gem you think it is. If a junior tasked with updating the code gets lost, calls on a senior for help and that senior can't grok your code -- it's not great. If that senior points that out, then they are doing their job as the primary audience of that code. This is not a place for conflict -- it is a place for learning. Yes, sometimes code is just complex. Sometimes language or framework features are not obvious to an outside programmer looking in. But it's unusual to find complex code which can't be made understandable. Einstein said:

“If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.” 

And I'd say this extends to your code -- if your co-workers can't extend it, learn of the (potentially complex) domain, work with the code you've made, then you're missing a fundamental reason for the code to exist: explaining the domain to others through modelling it and solving problems within it.

Working with people who haven't accepted this is difficult -- you can't point out flaws that need to be fixed or, in extreme cases, even fix them without inciting their wrath. You end up having to guerilla-code to resolve code issues or just bite your tongue as you quietly sweep up after them. Or worse -- working around the deficiencies in their code because they insist you depend on it whilst simultaneously denying you the facility to better it.

People like this get easily offended and may use whatever power is available to them to trip you up -- after all, anything you've said about their code or done to improve it is, from their viewpoint, a personal attack. Expect them to get personal with you too, perhaps even publically. At some point, you begin fear that you might have to actually work with them or on something they've worked on because you just know that the drama will come.

There's not a lot you can do about it and the only solace you can find is that you know that they are fading away into irrelevance -- and hopefully you aren't. Also, at some point, we probably all felt the pang when someone pointed out a flaw in our code. Hopefully, as we get older and wiser, this falls away. Personally, I think that divorcing your self-image from your creations, allowing yourself to be critical of the things you've made -- this is one of the marks of maturity that defines the difference between senior developer and junior developer. Not to say that a junior can't master this already -- more to say that I question the "seniority" of a senior who can't do this. It's just one of the skills you need to progress. Like typing or learning new languages.

All of this isn't to say that you can't take pride in your work or that there's no point trying to do your best. We're on this roundabout trying to learn more, to evolve, to be better. You can only get better from a place where you were worse. You can also feel pride in the good parts of what you've created, as long as that is tempered by a realistic, open view on the not-so-good parts. 

You may even like something you've made, for a while, at least. I'm currently in a bit of a honeymoon phase with NExpect (GitHub, Nuget): it's letting me express myself better in tests, it's providing value to handful of other people -- but this too shall pass. At some point, I'm going to look at the code and wonder what I was thinking. I'm going to see a more elegant solution, and I'm going to see the inadequacies of the code. Indeed, I've already experienced this in part -- but it's been overshadowed by the positive stuff that I've experienced, so I'm not quite at the loathing state yet.

You are not your fucking code. When it's faults become obvious, have the grace to learn instead of being offended. 

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