I was in one of my pondering moods the other day and it struck me that software development has less to do with pure mathematical prowess or engineering skill (though having that is certainly a benefit) and more to do with expressing yourself. This is no coincidence – it is because programming software is nothing but an exercise of making ones wishes understood. Indulge me for a minute here while I put to you my thought process…
Ever since we invented a computer, we have been evolving ever more sophisticated ways of communicating with it. As the computer grew more powerful and capable of understanding more complex thoughts we moved from machine code, to assembly instructions to software languages. We have reached a place now that computers are capable of processing huge amounts of data and instructions, executing extremely complex instructions and passing information between each other as needed. In response to these capabilities computers have been programmed using ever larger programs to solve ever bigger problems.
Programming solutions to today’s problems have gone beyond the capabilities of a single individual. Most software projects today require teams of programmers working in concert. This has lead to an interesting dynamic – developing software in groups. Except, software development has moved beyond geography – the ephemeral nature of software makes it an ideal candidate to be developed in a virtual construct that transcends physical proximity. Almost every non-trivial software program developed today is a collaboration of individuals, many of whom are literally at opposite ends of the earth and may have never met face to face.
This leads to a big problem – software programming is a pretty creative and complex process. Add to that, the fact that your collaborators are probably sleeping while you are coding and vice-versa, pile on the disparities in culture and language and you can see why I am saying that software development is more about expressing oneself. One of the bonuses we have being programmers is that, despite all these differences, we are trying to talk to computers and computers have standard ways of communicating with people. So, it can be argued that as long as we all are coding in the same programming language, and we are using the same tools we should be fine. Unfortunately, coding is a only a part of a software project – requirements, design, marketing, users, clients, quality assurance, maintenance, provisioning, etc – all are factors to be considered. All these aspects may be handled by people who are not programmers but still need to know what is going on. Besides, coding itself is much more than simply writing code, it also involves commenting, code reviews, design decisions, trade-offs and alternative approaches, all of which need to be discussed and communicated.
Given all the interactions that I described above, it is no surprise that programmers spend a significant amount of their time talking and writing about the stuff that are doing and are planning to do. Given this dynamic, in my experience, I have noticed that, successful programmers have learnt to express themselves clearly and concisely. I have seen this so consistently, that I would even go so far as to state that, a programmer that cannot clearly articulate a problem either in writing or in conversation has either not understood the problem or is incapable of solving the problem.
Expressing a thought clearly and concisely is a skill that must be practiced. Personally, I am using this blog as much to exercise this skill as I am for anything else. I would encourage you, dear reader, to give thought to this as well. Spend a few minutes over your next email or your next requirements document, proof reading it and making sure you have conveyed you point clearly and succinctly. Reading is another great way to improve your communication skills – look for books outside your normal fare, look at newspaper articles – I have found them to be great sources, since journalist have specific windows of reader-attention and space to convey their points.
Well, until next time… Programmer – Express thyself !!