Content from 2014-07

Dear Hackers
posted on 2014-07-16 12:33:00

(In which I talk about my feeeeeeels)

Disclaimer: This post comes in the middle of an existential crisis. I'm struggling a lot with programming as a career choice and feeling disconnected from a community of excited hackers. These feelings and opinions are my own and I think it's totally fine if you don't subscribe to them or want to write me off as an F-ing idiot.

Love First

A lot of the ideas in this post have been buzzing around in my head since I saw Jen Myers deliver her keynote at Strangeloop last year.

I've been keeping my thoughts in my head mostly because I'm already an established programmer. A lot of the motive for the talk was to be more welcoming to newcomers and minorities that struggled to be included in our communities. But I think this problem affects all of us, every last one, regardless of gender, race, or class.

The short version is that I think the tone of programming communities, especially online ones, is horrific. It's filled with religious debate over things less important than getting people excited about and interested in computing. For me, whether it's smart people posturing for social status or individuals genuinely trying to enlighten others is irrelevant.

Our first reaction to any comrade, any other person passionate about and interested in building things with computers, any human crazy and masochistic enough to try and expand the capabilities of these absurd machines, should be empathy and love.

This may seem ridiculous at first glance. It's harder than it sounds.

The Same Old Arguments

You already know the religious wars I'm talking about. They're silly little things. Are static or dynamic types better? (For some, is there even such a thing as being dynamically typed?) Is Vim or Emacs better? Should I learn programming with PHP or Haskell? Should my app use JSON, XML, or a self-describing binary format? Is programming math, art, or craft? Can code be literature?

For a host of reasons, these are questions we have a vested interest in. And I think, more often than not, our motive is to encourage more learning and exploration. But the conversation is almost always full of condescension and judgment, especially if the medium for response is limited. We simply cannot let supporting curiosity become secondary to proselytizing "the right thing".

Plain and simple, turning a prompt for exploration into a right-or-wrong religious debate is curiosity destroying. And that's precisely the opposite of our intent, the opposite of what we as a community should aspire to.

Our opinions are important, and I'm not precluding the existence of a right answer. But someone pondering a tricky subject isn't best met by bludgeoning them over the head with a conclusion. As long as the principal motive of those we interact with is the fractal question "Why?", we are together.

This connects to a lot of things. It connects to people wondering if they're good at programming, or how to know such a thing. It contributes to impostor syndrome. I've struggled to hack on hobby code for fun because I don't feel like I can be proud of it. Not smart enough, not groundbreaking enough, not important enough. And I know that's silly, because there are more important things to worry about.

So the more we can get away from emphasizing that the most important thing in programming is being right, the better that will be for newcomers, for hobbyists, and I believe, for all of us.

Epilogue

I'm reminded of an Alan Perlis quote in SICP:

"I think that it's extraordinarily important that we keep the fun in computing. ... We began to feel as if we really were responsible for the successful, error-free, perfect use of these machines. I don't think we are.

I think we're responsible for stretching them, setting them off in new directions, and keeping fun in the house."

I'm not perfect at this either. It is difficult to never be dismissive, let alone to always be gentle. But sometimes people are just trying to make it through the day. Not use the best tool, not come up with a groundbreaking solution, not fix the world. We need to try to meet other programmers where they are. Not move them to our habitat before empathizing, before loving.

Ironically, I know this has been a bit of a high-horse diatribe. At least let me give you a gift for coming so far and listening to me ramble so much. Here, have something I love, bits of Milosz:

To whom do we tell what happened on the earth,
for whom do we place everywhere huge mirrors
in the hope that they will be filled up and will stay so?

I think that I am here, on this earth,
To present a report on it, but to whom I don’t know.
As if I were sent so that whatever takes place
Has meaning because it changes into memory.

To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal.
Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity.
An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form,
which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.

What did I really want to tell them? That I labored to transcend my place and time,
searching for the Real. And we could have been united only by what we have in common:
the same nakedness in a garden beyond time, but the moments are short
when it seems to me that, at odds with time, we hold each other's hands.
And I drink wine and I shake my head and say: "What man feels and thinks will never be expressed."

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