Posts from "July 2011"

Opower Labs

Attentive Programming

  • By paul.vancleave
  • July 5, 2011

Attentive Programming

I’m currently reading Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft who writes about how manual labor can make you spiritually whole. To get us to look at work in new ways, he describes work using the categories: assertiveness and attentiveness. Crawford writes that work is not exclusively assertive or attentive and that to obtain the spiritualism that comes from manual work, you need balanced quantities of both. Too much assertiveness, and you may destroy your work, while too much attentiveness and you could go out of business. Soulcraft is being able to apply just the right amount of each.

I believe that Crawford’s categories can extend beyond the realm of manual labor. His descriptions really got me thinking about how they would apply to software engineering. What is “assertive” and “attentive” software engineering? I’ve always felt that programming brings with it a sort of spiritualistic satisfaction. Now Crawford gives me tools to examine programming in new ways.

The assertive programmer is one who makes new or improves features. In this case, the engineer is on the cutting edge of product development and essentially makes something out of nothing. He or she “asserts” him or herself by creating new code or by combining or expanding infrastructure in new ways to make new things.

This type of programming is fun and rewarding because you get to see something made. You also get a craftsman-level satisfaction and the pride of ownership knowing that the software is built well and that other people find it useful. Contrast this with the attentive programmer. The attentive programmer generally works with software that he or she didn’t make. And is given a problem which has perplexed others.

I think that I am more akin to this type of programmer. I am a Database Architect who works on the OPOWER Scale Team. On the Scale team, we handle problems that reflect scalability issues with the software. We also get a first crack at designing new features that are scalable out of the box, and I think that puts us firmly in the assertive camp.

I want to reflect more upon our reactive scalability work because I think this sort of work takes a different mindset and possibly a different software engineering approach. To be an attentive programmer you almost have to have a Zen-like disposition and “listen” to the information that you find. You may think that you understand the problem but you must verify if the hypothesis is true. And if it’s not, you must reexamine your assumptions, read the data again, and develop a new hypothesis to test.

The attentive programmer knows that truth is the path to the right solution, and that’s exactly how we approach problems on the Scale team. I think the key to a good scalability engineer is attentiveness and checking preconceived notions at the door. This type of programmer needs lots of experience and must be open to a wide range of ideas where hunches based upon past experiences or fresh perspectives can be quickly dismissed or followed based upon the facts.

To me probably nothing is more satisfying than taking a piece of code, no matter how complicated, that no one has been able to make go fast and making it fly. I’m always ready for the next problem and always wondering what I’m going to learn from that puzzle.

Are you an attentive or assertive programmer, or some combination of? Why? Thinking about how you approach software engineering may help you raise your game and bring with it the satisfaction of rising above the status quo.


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