Software in the Real World

Written on 2008-01-10 19:28:55
I'm a bit perturbed at the moment and I'm having a hard time figuring out why but it seems to happen to me after reading Spolsky articles and their associated reddit comments. That was the last time I remember having this same sense, at any rate. The sense that I might call "Computer Science scares the shit out of me". Either that or "the real world scares the shit out of me".

But on to the Spolsky article. I read Spolsky's article "The Perils of Java Schools" and the comments from when it was posted on reddit. The article is about what it sounds like it is. Joel thinks that schools have dumbed down their CS programs by teaching Java instead of a functional language like LISP or Scheme or a low level language like C. The commenters then get into arguments about Joel being stupid, what the ONE TRUE WAY to teach Computer Science and/or programming is, the reason one set of skills or another is valuable in industry, the difference in industry's goals and academia's, and anything else they see fit to mention.

The argument in comments on these articles is often in fact a mere miscommunication. One side advocates that a good (or great) programmer is found by a seeking out those that are technically adept with things like tail-call recursion and functional programming or low-level bit-hackery and such. The other side advocates finding those that have good design principles and an understanding of architecture/best practices.

The missed point seems to be that the first side (to my thinking) presumes that their conditions ipso facto create the candidate argued for by the second side. That is, the first side thinks if someone understands tail-call recursive functions and pointers than they must have some sense of design to go with their knowledge of abstractions and that this, consequently, makes them good engineers. The second side is missing this fact and arguing that design skill is more important than technical ability. Both are large components though. I do not think Spolsky would advocate hiring programmers who had technical ability but little design skill or design skill and best practices but little technical ability.

After reading these articles however I have to step back and remember that we're talking about Computer Science or Programming both of which ultimately have in mind the creation of software or in Sussman's words a description of a process. That description (software) is supposed to automate work, to create value. And THAT is the scary part.

Computer Science scares me a little because I wonder if I have the necessary chops (and desire) to become a good programmer. It's also scary because it will take me a while to even figure out the answer to that question, probably longer than I'd like. Real life on the other hand scares me a lot more for an entirely different reason that I'll explain by way of confession.

I confess that I have an intense urge to read reddit and I find it very hard to resist. It borders on compulsion. The reason is this: I think I'm lazy. In fact, it's even more than that. I think I'm not going to make it out there. You know, in the real world. There are a few reasons for this. One, it's painted as scary and brutal by a lot of people. Two, and this is the bit about me being lazy, I think the real world is bullshit. Or at least mostly bullshit. It's people trying to find ways to stay busy so they can make money so they can eat and do things they actually care about. This next bit is important so I want to state it carefully:

It's not that I don't think that there aren't people out there getting things done that actually need doing. It's that I think that 90% of human labor is about maintaining the status quo, that maintaining the status quo is a huge waste of time if not for the fact you'd starve otherwise, and that the little last bit that actually creates new value and advances the state of things seems like accident or luck as often as the product of hard work. Moreover, there's no guarantee no matter who you are that you won't just get bad luck and get screwed. THAT is what's scary.

It's scary because I don't want to hate my job and just try to do what's necessary to make it. It's scary because I'd like to be in that little 10% and there is no guaranteed way to get there. And it's scary because the very fact of it is implicitly anti-hope or anti-progress. "90% of the world is about maintaining the world. Good luck."

I read reddit not because I want to avoid my other duties but because I wildly want to believe that somewhere on there I will find the guidance I need to not be a 90% human being. I want to be good at something, produce value, not fear starvation or unemployment, and love my craft. So far, I believe programming to be my best bet. Hopefully, this year off from college will bear that out one way or another.
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