Do You Know Your Limits?

17. October, 2011

This interesting talk by Dan Ariely – Are we in control of our own decisions? – got my thinking. Dan says:

We understand our limitations. And we build around it. But for some reason when it comes to the mental world, when we design things like healthcare and retirement and stockmarkets, we somehow forget the idea that we are limited. I think that if we understood our cognitive limitations in the same way that we understand our physical limitations, even though they don’t stare us in the face in the same way, we could design a better world.

(my italics)

I think that is a very important point. Software development is a purely mental process. We take ideas, translate them into code. We’re authors, our audience is a CPU. We write in RAM chips instead of on paper. But basically, we’re translators.

Most software developers know their tools but not their own mental limits. Ask yourself: How much brain power does it take to type on a keyboard? Got your number?

It’s about 30%. When you type yourself, you only have 70% of your brain left to think what you’re typing.

Software development is a craft but it’s not like smithery. We had anvils and fire pits at my school. When you work with yellow-hot glowing steel, a five-pound hammer and an anvil, you learn something with your first strike: This is dangerous, this is hard work, this isn’t as simple as it looks, and how fast you’re going to tire.

How do you do that? Because your brain is wired by millions of years of evolution to know such things. Your muscles are designed to give you feedback: Can I outrun my enemy or do I have to make a stand? Forging steel is built into us. The result will vary with clumsiness but every person in my class was able to hit the steel with a hammer. It takes a day to teach someone to write the most simple program in Java but it takes one sentence to teach them how to flatten iron: “Take one of those hammers and hit it here.”

If driving steel is so simple, why are we so bad at software development?

Well, it’s one of those tasks where one brain tries to achieve two conflicting goals: Write software and at the same time watch itself doing it right. It’s a dilemma. You have 70% tops unless you have trouble at home, worry for your job, are hungry or mad at the guy next door yelling in his telephone. How much of the 70% are you going to give to “write software” and how much to “do it right”?

That said, being a software developer, you’re male (98% chance). Males suck at doing two things at a time and you’re already doing at least two. How much good is adding control to the pile going to do?

Probably not much. So what can you do?

First: Don’t forget that you’re limited. Clear your brain. Heed your limits.

Second: Turn your limits into a foundation. Instead of struggling with them, accept them. Use techniques like Test Driven Development to do one thing at a time: Tests answer the “do it right?” part. When you have the test, you can forget about this and go the “write software” part.

Use you limits. They are tools just like everything else.

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