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Question: What skills or characteristics do you need to be a great programmer?

Larry Wall:  Well, laziness, impatience, and hubris.  These originated as sort of a joke in the first edition of what we call the Camel Book, Programming Perl, and in a sense, they are the three virtues of a programmer.  A lazy person will try to always find some way to do something; they'll always be looking for ways of doing something faster, more efficiently, and if you really want to control the world, that's a really sort of hubristic notion—excessive pride, the thing that Zeus zaps you for having.

But it really was sort of a joke, in the Japanese edition, the translated edition of the Camel Book, they actually had to put "laziness, impatience, and hubris – this is a joke," because they felt that they would take it seriously.

So really what makes a good programmer is much more than those three things.  If you've either read the Lord of the Rings or seen the movies, you know about hobbits, and hobbits manifest many of the virtues that you need as a programmer.  You know, you need to have persistence, when the going gets rough, to keep slogging through, a kind of innate stubbornness—in a happy way, not in a mean way.  You have to be smart enough to outwit your enemies occasionally. And you have to be able to be social, you have to be able to deal with a group, your team members, some of which are like you, they're other hobbits, some of which are elves, and dwarves, or even men, and they think very differently from you.  So you have to be able to contribute your part as a hobbit, but also be able to understand other things.  So the day is long past when most programming is done individually.  Almost all programming is done in teams and so you need to be literate in a sense of, the hobbit sense of knowing your letters.  You have to be able to read documentation; you have to be able to write documentation that others can understand.  But mostly you have to be just slightly insane in the way that hobbits are, where they can view the long term, you know, the goal is to get back to your comfy burrow, and view all the, everything between here and there, at the same time, forget about all that and just deal with the problem you have at hand.

So in more concrete terms on a computer, you're telling it to do various things by name, and it's going off and doing those.  You have to simultaneously be aware of what it's doing down underneath, but if you're always aware of everything it's doing, you go really nuts.  So you also have to be able to shut that out and work on the high level abstraction.  And doing both of those simultaneously gives the best result in programming.  If you ignore either one of those, you end up messing up.  So, that's what you really need.

And like a hobbit, laziness, a hobbit is lazy in a very industrious way, and a hobbit is very impatient in a very patient way, and a hobbit is proud in a very humble way.  It sort of seems like contradictions, but to the extent that you can increase your dynamic range on all of those, you'll be a better programmer.

More from the Big Idea for Thursday, September 23 2010

 

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