Friday, 26 September 2014

Cavemen and Plainsmen

It is, of course, a gross overgeneralisation to say that there are two kinds of developers in the world. In this post I plan to grossly overgeneralise by discussing the two kinds of developers that are out there in the world.

Software developers like to write code, but the way that a developer likes to write code can vary wildly. Take, for example, the caveman. When given a problem, the caveman likes to retreat into his cave. There, in the dark, and away from the prying eyes of the people around him, they can take the rough stone of the basic problem and fashion it into a thing of beauty. The art of creation take a long time, so for those of us watching from the outside, it's as if the developer has ceased to exist.

Finally, the caveman emerges from the gloom, clutching the gorgeous artifact you've been waiting to see for so long. Or rather, they sometimes emerge from the gloom clutching a precious artifact. Sometimes, in the dark, they drop the rough stone they're working on and accidentally pick up a coprolite. This fossilised turd has now been thoroughly polished and shaped. It's perfect, but there's no mistaking that it's a turd.

Oh well. At least while it was happening the manager could relax and rest easy: although they had no idea what their caveman was working on, it was clear that they working on something because they were in the cave.

Contrast this with the plainsman.

Give a plainsman a problem, and they will gleefully leap about, showing it to everyone and anyone. It's amazing to watch one of these in action. Ideas fizz about them, and new approaches to tackle the problem are tried and discarded. You'll know that a plainsman is working on a problem because you'll see it. They might be vocal, they might be chatty on groups. Who knows? But you'll see and feel the heat of creation.

Eventually, the plainsman will come off the savannah and show you the end product. It may be the glorious artifact you hoped for, or, as with the caveman, they may have become distracted and hand over some sort of steampunk turd.

Of course, in the process of doing this, they may well have given their manager a few scares and worrisome moments --- progress may have appeared slow, or a deadend may have been investigated for too long. Their manager may well be ever-so-slightly balder than before. Stress does that.

Taking a step back, and only looking at the starting point and the end point, the two kinds of developer are identical. They're both given a problem, and they both sometimes solve it, and sometimes they royally screw it up. It turns out that they both probably follow the same techniques and processes to figure out how to build the software they're crafting. It's just that the caveman keeps this quiet, and doesn't like people to know how things are going until they're done, whereas a plainsman has never managed to figure out how to turn off the noise, or has consciously dialed up the volume.

Managers may actually prefer a caveman. If the end result is going to be the same anyway, it'd be nice to have a quiet life, free of stress, so that the manager can get on with the important work of whatever it is that managers do (Gantt Charts? Going to meetings? Browsing the web? Who knows --- they're a mystery to me, much like cats)

The manager is wrong, of course. It's infinitely preferable to work with a plainsman.

The reason is that it's a rare developer who has to work entirely alone and isolated. They tend to work in teams (as an aside, what is the collective noun for developers? A confusion? A multi-faceted-opinion?) Within that team, there's normally someone who needs the code that our hypothetical developer is working on. Being able to see progress allows others to prioritise their own work. And that moment, where the idea is dropped, and the turd picked up? That moment may not go unobserved in a group.

Managers know this too. I poke fun at them because I can. Not cats, though. Never poke fun at a cat.

Now, although I present this in black-and-white terms, it should go without saying (though I'll say it anyway) that it's a rare developer indeed who sits at one or other of these extremes. You can spot a caveman by the feedback from their peers. Things like "needs to work on communication", or "where the did this highly polished turd come from?" A plainsman might have feedback saying that they're noisy.

If you ever work with me, I'm a plainsman if you're within earshot. Ask anyone who's worked with me, that's quite a distance. However, if you're not on the IRC channel I'm on and out of earshot, I'm a pretty effective caveman. Which means that I should never be left on my own. Or fed after midnight. No. Hang on. That's Gremlins, right?

"I'm not trapped in here with them. They're trapped in here with me."

Update: I really like the terms "caveman" and "plainsman", mainly because I find that they're ones that people remember easily, and which fit the premise of the analogy well, but I'm aware that they're not gender-neutral. Suggestions for replacements have been "morlocks" and "eloi", or "troglodytes" and "herders", but both of those cast the caveman in a pretty negative light, which isn't really what I want to say. "Cavedweller" and "plains-dweller" are probably the best alternatives.