Programming, the myth and reality

16 juin 2013

Most of us have watched a hacker movie, at least once.  I have personally watched a fair amount of those: War game, Takedown,  Hackers, Swordfish, The social network, Pirates of the Silicon Valley to name a few.

These movies are so exciting to watch, even for the general public who doesn’t give a pineapple about computers. Of course, excitement easily comes from fiction rather than reality. So, not only are these movies all fictional (some of them less  than others though) but to some extent they all include a good dose of spurious stereotypes. The most recurring one, is that programmers or hackers spend most of their time ragingly hitting on their keyboard,  like if writing code was a second nature to them and everything is supposed to flow quickly and then the magic happens…

The truth is that if you randomly walk in a cubicle of any tech company, you will more likely see people starring cluelessly at their screens scratching their heads rather than typing on their keyboards.  If you want to see it from your own eyes, there is an excellent documentary that I wholeheartedly recommend you to watch, it’s called: Code Rush.  In this documentary, a team of journalists followed the Netscape Communications on their adventure to release the source code of their navigator, best known as Mozilla.

It was released under the Creative Common licence so you can watch it for free from the Internet Archive.  Do it,  I’ll wait.

Two things about the documentary:

To picture the amount of pressure that was floating around, you can read Jamie Zawinsky‘s diary. Or, if you don’t have time, here are some interesting excerpts:

Marc wants me to be done with the Unix client in time for SGI to ship it along with Irix 5.3. That means that it has to be rock solid in, like, less than two months. I’ve got so little of the code written that I don’t even have a sense yet of whether that’s even remotely possible; it’s all over the floor. We’ve got bits and pieces, but I don’t see the big picture. It’d be really easy to let him bully me into agreeing, but I don’t want to miss; the stakes are too high this time, too many people are watching us for us to be able to screw up at all…

I slept at work again last night; two and a half hours curled up in a quilt underneath my desk, from 11am to 1:30pm or so.

I just got home; the last time I was asleep was, let’s see, 39 hours ago.

I’ve had a sore throat and a cough for about a week now, but I haven’t done anything about it, because I don’t have time.

My hands have been really been hurting lately; I hope all this typing hasn’t finally blown out my wrists. If I can’t type, my life is over. My right hand especially is flaking out — the last knuckle of the middle two fingers ache, as if they’re badly bruised.

We’re doomed. We’ve finally announced a public beta to the net, and there are loads of bugs, and they’re hard bugs, sucky, hardware-dependent ones. Some of our private beta testers crash at startup on some SunOS 4.1.3 systems, and I’ve got what seems like an identical system here and it doesn’t crash. And scrolling text doesn’t work with the OpenWindows X server, though it works fine elsewhere. And the cache is still fucked. We’re doomed. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Doomed doomed doomed doomed doomed. I’m tempted to just stay home tomorrow. I’m so fucking burnt. Existence is suffering.

I’ve spent most of the day so stressed out that my skull is rattling from the pressure of my teeth grinding together. I feel like I have finally exceeded my stress limits and am about blow a gasket. But I can’t go home, because if I do, the world will end, right? I’m trying to work, but every few minutes I have to stop typing and make fists so tightly that my whole body shakes.

I’ve just noticed that there’s still purple ink on the inside of my right wrist spelling the word VOID: the hand-stamp from a concert that I went to last week. I left work, went to the show, and came back to work immediately afterwards. I’ve been here since.

You get the idea.

But what is more interesting is that if you dig enough into the Internet Archive, you will find some uncut video footage.  They are goldmine because you will be able to watch some discussions between the documentary crew and the engineers.  The most interesting one (to the point of this article) shows an engineer by the name of Don Milton, debugging the Mac version of Netscape. It’s funny to see how he was absolutely clueless about why that bug was happening.

He wasn’t even sure about the context in which that bug could be reproduced and thus couldn’t even start thinking about the solution. You can see him starring at his screen for a couple of minutes, touching his nose and you can constantly read the expression on his face saying: I have no idea what’s going on here…

So if the idea of spending countless hours solving challenging problems is not appealing to you, and  if you are more interested into impressing your girl friend with some crazy typing skills, then the HackerTyper has got your back. Joke aside,  I guess the purpose of this article is to encourage the right people to join the IT industry (I am looking at you, ladies!) by encouraging you to focus on what Software Engineering is really like (solving problems) rather than believing in the typical/common nerds stereotypes broadly instrumentalized  in the film industry.