Ravi Mohan's Blog

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Is that office work?

So, it is late at night and two of my friends are talking to each other. One is a programmer, a very good one, and the other is a manager, I have no idea how good a manager he is.

The programmer is multi tasking, carrying on a conversation in one mental thread and working on some code in another. As the conversation ebbs and flows, his attention also focuses more or less on the code as appropriate, sometimes muttering to himself, sometimes whooping out loud, sometimes ignoring the code and focussing on the conversation.

The manager gets more and more curious as to what exactly the programmer is doing and finally blurts out "Is that office work ? something you have to deliver tomorrow?" . The programmer looks confused and says " No, no it is just something that I am fiddling with". Now the manager looks confused.

And in that moment, *I* understood something. Many people think of programming as work. It sounds very normal and rational when you write it out like that, but most good programmers I know don't think of programming as something you "do at work". Programming is a means of expressing oneself, which also *happens to be* something people pay for. And this is lost on some people who can't imagine "working on" something outside the office..

Just to be clear this has nothing to do with managers vs developers. I can imagine a manager poring over company balance sheets or whatever to find a good investment opportunity and some random programmer who doesn't write a line of code outside office hours asking the same question and getting the same answer.

The difference is something more fundamental. People either have something they work on in their free time or they don't. Now that I think of it, a staggering percentage of the people I know would just switch on the TV, or pick up a book, or idly surf the web or pick up the phone and call someone when they have a couple of hours of free time. The person who picks up a guitar, or writes a program, or analyzes a balance sheet or writes an essay is much rarer than the first variety. Many people don't work *on* anything outside their office hours (and then wonder why "life is boring".

I am sure many people say "yeah so what?" but as someone who has many irons in the fire and is always "working on" something or the other, it was a big revelation to me that most people **don't** have more things to do in life than time to do them in.

One lives. One learns.

As usual, once I finish writing a blog entry I find someone expressing the idea better than I can.

Excerpts from Dan Russell's essay on marathon running (you should read the whole thing).

I don't know how many people have told me that I'm crazed. But the reaction I get when I tell someone I'm running in the Boston marathon is either a "that's wonderful -- how exciting!" or a "you must be out of your mind..."

Usually, it's the latter. And if the person I'm talking with is not a runner or bicyclist or someone who enjoys the pleasures of a workout, then the conversation usually turns toward the health hazards of rigorous exercise. I've been told to watch for vitamin depletion, unexpected calcifications, loss of sensation in the private bits, shin splints, and even unexplained loss of sleep. It's touching, really, especially the ones that are worried about vague causal factors like "getting the body too riled up..."

....So it's hard to explain sometimes why you'd even want to run so far. ..Don't mistake me, running the marathon will be tremendously exciting; there's nothing quite like the sensation of running into the chutes at the finish line, all of the cheers, hearing your name and time called out over the PA -- it's a little like being born and first love and finally getting permission to stop all at once. It's relief, desire and fulfillment borne over the past several months all condensed sweetly into that final few minutes of running.

But as someone one said about practicing the viola, "the epiphanies come in practice." Don't mistake me, running the marathon will be tremendously exciting; ......So I've been running six days a week for the past year just to make it to Boston. Or have I? Seems to me that running is about, well, not to put too fine a Zenish point on it, running. Like anything else, once you've put enough hours of practice into a skill, the doing of the skill transcends the normal, pedestrian everyday experience. Once you get past the first thousand hours or so, the act of running becomes larger than the little aches and pains of physical motion. When I run, I'm moving over terrain; I glide through topography; my body becomes the vehicle that transports me through space. This is an odd, almost out-of-body feeling that starts to happen when you run long miles for training. More than a few times I've run and had the feeling that it would be fun to explore down this road; so I turn, and run down this road. Natural enough, but when you're running 18 or 20 miles, these side roads and random ventures can be two or three miles long each. That kind of distance really begins to change the nature of the experience. You cross towns on a whim and run over sizeable chunks of real estate just to see what's on the other side. On more than one occasion I've run north around a mountain or decided to shift to another watershed during a run. It's the change in scale that's so quietly dramatic. You stop worrying about distance and begin thinking about time -- "if I go this way, will it take another hour?"...

Exactly! And that is what my programmer friend was doing. Exploring. What happens if I try this? And then that? The pleasure from the act of exploring is something that my manager friend, who has nothing comparable in his experience to validate the process against, doesn't quite understand. (Note: This doesn't make him a bad person). So he falls back to "Is that office work"? or in other words, "where are you running to? Can't you get a taxi ?"


Nested said...

I don't know about this. Exploration is great, but if you're not a student or a hobbyist, then there has to be a measure of professionalism too: What are the priorities? I think I would be somewhat cautious about the idea of someone goofing around with some code on company time. Google seems to have a good philosophy in this regard: They (I'm told) encourage their developers to spend some time on developing their own ideas, but they set a limit too.

I have to say, and this is just my own personal opinion, that there is something untenable about the idea of a professional developer as an Artist(e). I recently re-read Hackers, and Steve Wozniak sounds like an interesting case. He really was an Artist, and he did something amazing, but he also had no place at apple beyond the point where he could have complete control over the entire design.

Ravi said...

"I think I would be somewhat cautious about the idea of someone goofing around with some code on company time."

where did I mention company time?

You interpret "professional" in your own way - "professional" is the not the opposite of or exclusive from "exploring". - (and that's fine) but you read things into my entry that I didn't put there (which is fine too).

Anonymous said...

The post begins with "it is late at night .." and goes on to say (emphasis mine) "People either have something they work on in their ***free time*** or they don't."

It is obvious that Ravi is talking about something that happened long after working hours are over.

And where did he mention "goofing around"? He used the word "exploration". They are not quite the same in Physics (my area of competence) . I wouldn't know about programming ;-).

Nested said...

Oops. I scanned the blog entry instead of reading it carefully, and indeed missed the point. I read it as a conversation between a programmer and his manager at work. My apologies.

Pramod said...

Interesting post.

I agree with you when you say there are lots of folks who can't imagine "work" of any sort outside of their office. The stuff that comes after that, I'm not so convinced about. I don't think that not having a "passion" means that you're going to have a boring life. You could just do a lot of different things and find them all reasonably interesting without ever getting too involved in any of them.

Ravi said...

"I don't think that not having a "passion" means that you're going to have a boring life."

Since I never said anything to that effect?

if you are referring to this sentence,

"Many people don't work *on* anything outside their office hours (and then wonder why "life is boring"."

I don't think it parses the way you think it does :-) (hint : - many != "all those who")