A Sip From The Firehose: January 6, 1997

By: David Intersimone

Abstract: Happy New Year!

A Sip From The Firehose
January 6, 1997

Happy New Year!

I hope the new year has started out as great for you as it has for me. I look forward to all the great things that will be happening this year.

To start the new year off with a bang (and while I am out on vacation), I have included a guest column from a good friend, J.D. Hildebrand. Many of you know J.D. as the Editorial Director for Windows Tech Journal and also for his involvement in our annual developers conference.


A Little Too Difficult

by J.D. Hildebrand
Editorial Director, Windows Tech Journal
PennWell Publishing Co.
jdh@nerds.com, www.pennwell.com

Do you ever find yourself surprised by what you say? I have learned to devote a portion of my attention to what I'm saying when I make presentations at programming conferences or kibbutz with co-workers. On a fairly regular basis I find myself blurting out things that surprise me.

It happened a few weeks ago when I visited Borland HQ in Scotts Valley for a working meeting of the Borland Developers Conference Advisory Board. I'm on the C++ board this year, working with four or five other board members to put together the list of tutorials and technical sessions that will be offered at the 8th annual BDC (July 12-16 at Nashville's remarkable Opryland Hotel — every time I mention the dates in public I earn brownie points with Borland's Christine Sherman, who chairs the board). Midway through the meeting I startled myself by declaring, "You know, what I really like about C++ programming is that it's a little too hard for me."

This is not the sort of admission people expect me to make. I got my first programming job in 1978 and I have edited programmers' magazines full-time for more than a decade. I have grown accustomed to the embarrassing assumption people make, that I am some kind of super-programmer. The truth is that I spend far more time reading and writing about programming than actually doing it. I suspect that most of my readers are better programmers than I am.

I was surprised by the way other board members reacted to my confession. One — a hardcore programmer who spends all day writing C++ code — simply shrugged and said, "You're right. It is too hard." The other board members nodded in agreement.

What I find remarkable about this exchange is not that a group of programmers finally admitted that writing C++ code is hard, but that a group of C++ fanatics were admitting that they love the language anyway. I have come to believe that we love C++ not despite, but because of, its difficulty. And that belief has led me to a theory about human nature.

I think the defining characteristic of our species must be the way we are drawn to activities that are just beyond our capabilities.

Consider the pool table. If our hand-eye coordination were 5 or 10 percent better, pool wouldn't be a challenge. And I bet we wouldn't enjoy it anymore — it would seem as pointless as tic-tac-toe.

Or musical performance. I was a music major in college, and in the practice room I received daily confirmation that a perfect performance was just beyond my grasp. Every time I mastered a tricky passage I came to understand that there were new challenges to meet: nuances of expression and musicality beyond playing all the right notes in the right order.

In all sorts of fields, we are drawn to activities that are just slightly beyond our capabilities. As we hurl ourselves again and again at the goal, we experience the uniquely human satisfaction of growing, of extending the boundaries of our competence. That's the payoff.

On television, programmers are geeky nerds with bad skin and no social skills. We are supposed to understand that their communion with computers makes them somehow less human.

But I think a love of programming — no less than a love of chess or poetry or ballet dancing — is part and parcel of being human. It is an expression of the universal human need to test oneself against goals that are just beyond reach. If it were easy, we wouldn't find it interesting.

So do I find writing Windows programs an impossibly difficult enterprise? Yes I do.

That's why I love it.

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