Coders at Work

I started reading Coders at Work, and it is just as good as Jeff and Joel say. The Jamie Zawinski chapter is brilliant. Brad Fitzpatrick  – while he may be an exceptional developer, he’s a ‘wow, like, dude!’  kind of speaker, and not much fun to read. The real highlight for me (so far) is Peter Norvig.

So far I’ve been successfully avoided the temptation of rehashing stuff in this blog, but the Norvig interview is just too good. Every single paragraph in his interview is worth hanging as an office poster.  (Plus, unlike the Zawinski interview, I haven’t seen it quoted around that much yet). Here are a few of his words, that are a real lesson to live by:

Seibel: How do you avoid over-generalization and building more than you need and consequently wasting resources that way?
Norvig: It’s a battle. There are lots of battles around that. And, I’m probably not the best person to ask because I still like having elegant solutions rather than practical solutions. So I have to sort of fight with myself and say, “In my day job I can’t afford to think that way.” I have to say, “We’re out here to provide the solution that makes the most sense and if there’s a perfect solution out there, probably we can’t afford to do it.” We have to give up on that and say, “We’re just going to do what’s the most important now.” And I have to instill that upon myself and on the people I work with. There’s some saying in German about the perfect being the enemy of the good; I forget exactly where it comes from—every practical engineer has to learn that lesson.

Seibel: Why is it so tempting to solve a problem we don’t really have?

Norvig: You want to be clever and you want closure; you want to complete something and move on to something else. I think people are built to only handle a certain amount of stuff and you want to say, “This is completely done; I can put it out of my mind and then I can go on.” But you have to calculate, well, what’s the return on investment for solving it completely? [My emph – OS] There’s always this sort of S-shaped curve and by the time you get up to 80 or 90 percent completion, you’re starting to get diminishing returns. There are 100 other things you could be doing that are just at the bottom of the curve where you get much better returns. And at some point you have to say, “Enough is enough, let’s stop and go do something where we get a better return.”

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1 Response to Coders at Work

  1. rmn says:

    I think many programmers have this kind of problems. I know I have – I just MUST take anything I write to perfection. If i know there’s something to fix, I’ll go ahead and do it, even if there’s no real gain from that. It’s probably not the best approach when working, I admit.

    Thanks for the read, I hope I’ll get to read the book some time.

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