The Joy of Programming

I’ve seen many tech companies where people on the business side have a complete lack of understanding of what motivates software developers or makes them do the work they do. This results in dissatisfied and demotivated developers that are eventually going to quit and move on to work on something more exciting somewhere else.

While it’s usually hard to put the joy we get out of programming into words, The Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks does a very good job with that.

Here is a quote from the book’s first chapter:

Why is programming fun? What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward?

First is the sheer joy of making things. As the child delights in his mud pie, so the adult enjoys building things, especially things of his own design. I think this delight must be an image of God’s delight in making things, a delight shown in the distinctness and newness of each leaf and each snowflake.

Second is the pleasure of making things that are useful to other people. Deep within, we want others to use our work and find it helpful. in this respect, the programming system is not essentially different from the child’s first clay pencil holder “for Daddy’s office.”

Third is the fascination of fashioning complex puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts and watching them work in subtle cycles, playing out the consequences of the principles built in from the beginning. The programmed computer has all the fascination of the pinball machine or the jukebox mechanism carried to the ultimate.

Fourth is the joy of always learning, which springs from the nonrepeating nature of the task. In one way or another, the problem is always new, and its solver learns something: sometimes practical, sometimes theoretical, and sometimes both.

Finally there is the delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures.

I believe that there’s a balance that can be struck between work that engaging, challenging and fulfilling, and work that is financially rewarding. Focusing on either side and ignoring the other results in dysfunctional companies that are bound to drive employees away.