Coder self-esteem

You know, I've been making my a living writing software for over 10 years now. If my resume is any indication, I'm pretty good at it. But every now and then I still read something that gives me that. just for a minute, like maybe I've just been fooling myself all these years, like I'm actually completely inadequate as a software developer.

This Slashdot article gave me such a feeling. It links to a Google case study that involved porting MAME to the Chrome Native Client. The summary ends with this quote from the article: "The port of MAME was relatively challenging; combined with figuring out how to port SDL-based games and load resources in Native Client, the overall effort took us about 4 days to complete."

Now, I don't follow Chrome development at all, so when I read this, I had absolutely no idea what the Native Client actually was. My initial guess was that it was probably some API to access native libraries or hardware from JavaScript, or something like that. So it sounded like "porting MAME" would entail porting the code to a different programming language, or a different set of APIs for audio and video, or some similar.

That sounds like a pretty huge undertaking to me. And they did it in four days?!? Wow! I know Google is supposed to be all about hiring the best and the brightest, but that's just ridiculous. I mean, that would take me months to finish! And even if I was already familiar with the internal workings of MAME and Chrome, it would still be a matter of weeks, not days. How did they do it? Are they really that good? Am I just some third-rate hack by comparison?

Well...turns out they're not actually that good. This comment on the article sums it up nicely. Turns out that the Native Client isn't actually a totally different API, but presents a POSIX-like API with support for compilers and build tools. So really, this was less like porting MAME to something totally new and more like making it run on a different operating system. And they didn't even do a real production-quality port. Instead, they simly removed several problematic parts of the code and just sort of "made it work." Granted, that's still a pretty impressive amount to accomplish in only 4 days, but it's hardly the super-human feat it seemed a first.

This sort of story is one of the things that's always bothered me about the culture of software development - it's full of tall tales. Listening to the stories people tell, you'd think everyone was building big, impressive programs in a couple of days. It's not until you pry for details that you realize that the impressive sounding thing is actually little more than a prototype. Sure, Bob may have built a working C compiler over the weekend, but he doesn't mention that it can only reliably compile "Hello, world" so far.

It's almost a lie by omission - you report a truncated version of your accomplishment and rely on an implicit comparison to something much more involved to make you sound super-human. And I say "almost" because it's not just self-aggrandizers doing this. In many cases, the tale just grows in the telling. This case is an excellent example - Slashdot took an impressive sounding quote, stuck it in a brief summary, and made the whole thing sound bigger than it was.

I sometimes wonder what effect this sort of rhetoric has on beginning programmers. Do they find it inspirational? Does it make them want to become the "programming god" who accomplished this sounds-more-impressive-than-it-is feat? Or is it discouraging? Do they hear these stories and think, "I'd never be able to do something like that."

Looking back, I think that it was kind of a progression for me. When I was first learning to code, those stories sounded cool - I could be the guy telling them one day. Then, after a few years in the industry, they started to be discouraging. I mean, I'd been doing this for years and I still wasn't the guy in those stories. Now I'm over ten years in and I'm just skeptical. Whenever I hear one of those stories, my first thought is, "So what's the catch?" (Because, let's face it, there's always a catch.)

And the worst part is, I don't even know if that story should be inspiring or just sad.

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