Jim Bird

About Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.

Programming: Thinking or Typing, Thinking and Typing

“If you don’t think carefully, you might think that programming is just typing statements in a programming language.”

Ward Cunningham, in the Forward to The Pragmatic Programmer

Software development – design, solving problems, coming up with optimal new algorithms, learning a new language, refactoring messy code into something tight and elegant – requires hard thinking.

When you’re trying to do something that you’ve never done before – or nobody has ever done before. Or when you’ve done it before but you sure as hell aren’t going to make the same mistakes again and you need time to think your way to a better way. Or when you’re trying to understand code that somebody else wrote so you can change it, or when you’re hunting down an ugly bug. All of this can take a lot of time, but in the end you won’t have a lot of code to show for it.

Then there’s all the other work in development – work that requires a lot of typing, and not as much thinking. When it’s clear what you need to do and how you need to do it, but you have an awful lot of code to pound out before the job is done. You’ve done it before and just have to do it again: another script, another screen, another report, and another after that. Or where most of the thinking has already been done for you: somebody has prepared the wireframes and told you exactly how the app will look and feel and flow, or speced out the API in detail, so all you need to do is type it in and try not to make too many mistakes.

Debugging is thinking. Fixing the bug and getting the fix tested and pushed out is mostly typing. Early stage design and development, technical spikes to check out technology and laying out the architecture, is hard thinking. Doing the 3rd or 4th or 100th screen or report is typing. UX design and prototyping: thinking. Pounding out CRUD maintenance and config screens: typing. Coming up with a cool idea for a mobile app is thinking. Getting it to work is typing. Solving common business problems requires a lot of typing. Optimizing business processes through software requires hard thinking.

Someone who is mostly thinking and someone who is just typing are doing very different kinds of work and need to be managed in different ways.

Sometimes Programming is just Typing

“We are typists first, and programmers second.”

Jeff Atwood, Programming Horror

Many business applications are essentially shallow. Lots of database tables and files with lots of data elements and lots of data, and lots of CRUD screens and lots of reports that are a lot like a lot of other screens and reports, and lots of integration work with lots of fields to be mapped between different points and then there are compliance constraints and operational dependencies to take care of. Long lists of functional requirements, lots of questions to ask to make sure that everyone understands the requirements, lots of details to remember and keep track of.

Banking, insurance, government, accounting, financial reporting and billing, inventory management and ERP systems, CRM systems, and back-office applications and other book-keeping and record-keeping systems are like this. So are a lot of web portals and online shops. Some maintenance work – platform upgrades and system integration work and compliance and tax changes – is like this too.

You’re building a house or a bridge or a shopping mall, or maybe renovating one. Big, often sprawling problems that may be expensive to solve. A lot of typing that needs to be done. But it’s something that’s been done many times before, and the work mostly involves familiar problems that you can solve with familiar patterns and proven tools and ways of working.

“I saw the code for your computer program yesterday. It looked easy. It’s just a bunch of typing. And half of the words were spelled wrong. And don’t get me started on your over-use of colons.”

The Pointy Haired Boss sees some actual code

Once the design is in place most of the work is in understanding and dealing with all of the details, and managing and coordinating the people to get all of that code out of the door. This is classic project/program management: budgeting and planning, tracking costs and changes and managing hand offs. It’s about logistics and scale and consistency and efficiency, keeping the work from going off of the rails.

Think Think Think

Other problems, like designing a gaming engine or a trading algorithm, or logistics or online risk management or optimizing real-time control systems, require a lot more thinking than typing. These systems have highly-demanding non-technical requirements (scalability, real-time performance, reliability, data integrity and accuracy) and complex logic, but they are focused on solving a tight set of problems. A few smart people can get their head around these problems and figure most of them out. There’s still typing that needs to be done, especially around the outside, the framing and plumbing and wiring, but the core of the work is often done in a surprisingly small amount of code – especially after you throw away the failed experiments and prototypes.

This is where a lot of the magic in software comes from – the proprietary or patented algorithms and the design insight that lies at the heart of a successful system. The kind of work that takes a lot of research and a lot of prototyping, problem solving ability, and real technical chops or deep domain knowledge, or both.

Typing and Thinking are different kinds of work

Whether need to do a lot of typing or mostly thinking dictates how many people you need and how many people you want on the team, and what kind of people you want to do the work. It changes how people work together and how you have to manage them. Typing can be outsourced. Thinking can’t. You need to recognize what problems can be solved with typing and what can’t, and when thinking turns to typing.

Thinking work can and should be done by small teams of specialists working closely together – or by one genius working on their own. You don’t need, or want, a lot of people while you are trying to come up with the design or think through a hard problem, run experiments and iterate. Whoever is working on the problem needs to be immersed in the problem space, with time to explore alternatives, chances to make mistakes and learn and to just stare out the window when they get stuck.

This is where fundamental mistakes can be made: architecture-breaking, project-killing, career-ending errors. Picking the wrong technology platform. Getting real-time tolerances wrong. Taking too long to find (or never finding) nasty reliability problems. Picking the wrong people or trying to solve the wrong problem. Missing the landing spot.

Managing this kind of work involves getting the best people you can find, making sure that they have the right information and tools, keeping them focused, looking out for risks from outside, and keeping problems out of their way.

Thinking isn’t predictable. There’s no copy-and-paste because there’s nothing to copy and paste from. You can’t estimate it, because you don’t know what you don’t know. But you can put limits on it – try to come up with the best solution in the time available.

Typing is predictable. You can estimate it – and you have to. The trick is including all of the things that need to be typed in, and accounting for all of the little mistakes and variances along the way – because they will add up quickly. Sloppiness and short cuts, misunderstanding the requirements, skipping testing, copy-and-paste, the kinds of things which add to costs now and in the future.

Typing is journeyman work. You don’t need experts, just people who are competent, who understand the fundamentals of the language and tools and who will be careful and follow directions and who can patiently pound out all the code that’s needed – although a few senior developers can out-perform a much larger team, at least until they get bored. Managing a bunch of typists requires a different approach and different skills: you need to be a politician and diplomat, a logistician, a standards setter, an administrator and an economist. You’re managing project risks and people risks, not technical risks.

Over time, projects change from thinking to typing – once most of the hard “I am not sure what we need to do or how we’re doing to do it” problems are solved, once the unknowns are mostly known, now it’s about filling in the details and getting things running.

The amount of typing that you need to do expands as you get more customers and have to deal with more interfaces to more places and more customizations and more administrivia and support and compliance issues. The system keeps growing, but most of the problems are familiar and solvable. There’s lots of other code to look at and learn from and copy from. You need people who can pick up what’s going on and who can type fast.

Thinking and Typing

Thinking and typing are both important parts of software development.

In “Programming is Not Just Typing”, Brendan Enrick explains that the reason that Pair Programming works is because it lets people focus on typing and thinking at the same time:

Both guys are thinking, but about different things. One developer has the keyboard at any given time and keeps in his head the path he is on. (This guy is concerned with typing speed.) He types along the path thinking about the code he is currently writing not the structure of the app, but the code he is typing right now. For a short time his typing speed matters.

The programmer in the pair who is not actively typing is spending all of his time thinking. He keeps in his head the path that the typist is taking, not concerned with the syntax of the programming language. That is the other guy thinking about the language syntax. The one sitting back without the keyboard is the guide. He must make sure that the pair stays on the right path using the most efficient route to success.

There’s more to being a good developer than typing – and there’s more to typing than just being able to press some keys. It means being good at the fundamentals: knowing the language well enough, knowing your tools and how to use them, knowing how to navigate through code, knowing how to write code – as well as being fast at the keyboard. Mastering the mechanics, knowing the tools and being able to type fast, so that you’re fluent and fluid, are all essential for succeeding as a developer. Don’t diminish the importance of typing. And don’t let typing – not being able to type – get in the way of thinking.

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