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I rarely solve difficult programming challenges. I solve difficult business challenges all the time.



For the past couple of years, I have been employed as a sysadmin, but for the past ~two years, my main task has been to implement the glue that hooks up several software systems we use and write what could be reporting tools.

Programming-wise it's been kind of dull, actually. No fancy clever stuff. At the same time it's been demanding in terms of understanding the business perspective on things. How do you define "costs accumulated on a given project" or "coverage contribution of a given project"? Having no background in business management or accounting, I have little to no clue, but it sure was interesting to find out.

So, yeah, we're in the same boat, I guess. ;-)


I'll echo that sentiment, I experience it daily. Very rarely is a business itself abstract and complicated enough to merit an abstract and complicated technical solution. Meatspace is still pretty simple.


There's often a non-complicated solution to a difficult problem but spotting it takes some skill and experience and sometimes takes longer to implement than a more obvious complicated solution.


And sometimes complicated problems can really be solved only by a complicated solution, but can be half-assed in a simple way. You pay for the partial solution much later.

It is good to avoid future discounting in this way.


I usually solve difficult programming challenges by turning them into simple ones.


I rarely solve difficult programming challenges. I solve difficult business challenges all the time.

This is an expedient way of presenting difficulties encountered in software development. Suppose you need to collate information from many different processes that are distributed in space and time, possibly pursuing the information from a series of back-up sources when the primary source fails, and providing on demand, at any point along the way, a summary of results taking into account pending results and failures.

This is a straightforward problem for a human. A person does not need special training to pick up the phone when their boss calls and say, "The framer finished on Tuesday, the faucet supplier hasn't replied to any of the voice mails I left last week so I sent an email to the plumber since he's used them before, the electrician says the wiring won't pass inspection the way we asked him to do it, and the client approved a draw for $10k so there will be no problem paying for the tile on Friday." Someone who does not program computers does not see a need to analyze this problem and create a precise and detailed plan for how to pursue and summarize this kind information. The difficulty arises when attempting to do something like this with a computer.

Therefore, it's reasonable to describe it as a programming challenge. But you'd be foolish to. You're much better off calling it a business challenge, because getting it right matters to other people and the proper modifier for stuff that matters is "business." If it's "programming" then you're just amusing yourself on company time.

We've internalized this terminology to a sick degree. I took someone's dependent little brother to a diabetes appointment for them, and when I was summarizing the visit to her, I accidentally referred to the doctor's directions for taking the various medications as the "business logic." I meant to distinguish it from the things the doctor explained merely to satisfy my curiosity. As programmers we've had it drilled into us that "business" means something that matters to other people and can be discussed with them. Anything that is not "business" is at best mildly self-indulgent to mention and at worst selfish to even think about.

Therefore, we strive to describe everything we do as "business." This is how the statement

I rarely solve difficult programming challenges. I solve difficult business challenges all the time.

becomes a declaration of virtue.

As an illustration of how words affect how we think about things, replace the word "programming" with "engineering." We aren't ashamed of tackling "engineering" challenges. So there's an out when something is hard and matters but can't plausibly called a business challenge: call it an engineering challenge instead.


IMO the distinction has more to do with whether you are:

(A) Converting something that you understand and are satisfied with... into a form the computer can operate upon.

(B) Persuading other people to change their process or expectations into something that is sane and generally understandable.


There are many tasks that are easy to solve with a human brain and very hard to solve with a computer. Anyone except a programmer will see them as sane and generally understood and will be satisfied with a description of the problem that would be sufficient for a human being. These are the kinds of problems where a programmer has to be very careful about the perception of his or her work.

The naive programmer sees that all of the difficulty has been introduced by the decision to solve the problem with a computer system. Therefore it is the programmer's responsibility to solve the difficult problem and justify the difficulty to others. Concurrency is not a problem for human beings, so if concurrency is a difficulty, the programmer must take the time to solve it, and if a non-programmer asks why he is taking so long, he must do his best to explain why concurrency is hard for computer programs.

The wise programmer shields himself by exposing as much of the difficulty as possible onto non-programmers without every mentioning the computer. Never mind that the task is well enough specified for a $15 an hour temp worker to carry out -- it is ridden with underspecified "business logic!" The naive programmer assumes that the system must operate under any reasonable ordering of events or failures. The wise programmer brings obscures scenarios up in meetings, suggests that such-and-such a scenario isn't valid, furrows his brow worriedly at the answer, and then proclaims that the "business rules" need to be "more completely specified" to handle these "previously out of scope cases."

Again, never mind that in the past a dozen different human beings with no special training performed the task reliably without needing to call meetings to find out how to do their job. Never mind that no difficulty existed until the introduction of a computer that needed to be programmed. The wise programmer understands that the task is difficult and he needs to make everyone else feel that difficulty so that he doesn't appear to be struggling with an easy assignment. Therefore a task that the business has been performing successfully since its inception must be found to be ridden with previously undiscovered "business challenges."


I'm not entirely sure whether I should be reading that as an earnest explanation regarding recurring problems with automation, or a gradually increasing level of sarcasm aimed towards lazy developers.


Neither developer is lazy. They both work hard and solve a hard problem. However, the naive developer is perceived as taking a long time on an easy problem for no good reason, and might not even be allowed to finish. The wise developer is perceived as taking a disappointing but reasonable amount of time on a surprisingly difficult problem. That the wise developer achieves this by acting disingenuously and wasting a lot of other people's time tells us something about a social phenomenon we see in the comments here, namely that programmers care quite a lot about how they label the difficulties they face, and they feel most comfortable with labels that classify the difficulty outside their area of professional competence.

Obviously the absurdity bothers me. I didn't enjoy being the naive developer, and I don't think I would enjoy being the wise developer, either, if I were capable of it. That means I'm doomed never to work alone. Right now my team is eight months into a project that was supposed to produce a prototype in three months, and we are yet to produce anything beyond a handful of disconnected demos. If I was doing this project by myself, or if I was leading a team of people like me, we would have been relieved of responsibility a long time ago. But we're fine because we have a couple of wise developers who are capable of communicating the difficulties in the manner described above, by essentially teaching other parts of the company that they don't know how to do their jobs.

I dislike the reality and am intentionally painting an unflattering picture of it, but I'm not trying to assign blame or disparage any party, because I don't have a solution. I just thought I'd present it as a way of seeing things.




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