WEB Advent 2009 / Parenting Versus Programming

Advent calendars are about Christmas, and for me Christmas has always been a time for family. This year I have recently joined the ranks of the parents among you. I am taking a short break from work and focusing on being a mother rather than being a programmer. This has led me to reflect on the similarities between parenting and coding. I present these here for your enlightenment, or so you can laugh at me.

Lesson one: smells

Babies, like programs, are associated with a variety of interesting smells. If you try to ignore the smells associated with babies, they only get worse over time. Then the screaming starts.

It was Martin Fowler who popularized the notion of code smells. These are defined as parts of your code that do things in an ugly way, or to put it a different way, they are hacks. Typically, when we find these parts of code, our eyes begin to glaze over, and we enter a strange, zombie-like state. (This will also be familiar to parents.) In this state, we are paralyzed and thus prevented from doing anything about the smell. It is only when we emerge from the cave of code smells into the daylight of clean code that we can again be productive. I am not sure whether it is the horror of the code, a tendency to procrastinate that is endemic among programmers, or simply a fear of breaking things that prevents most people from doing something about the mess. It is always the smelliest parts of the code that are the most fragile.

The lesson programmers can learn from babies, here, is to face your smells and get rid of them as quickly as possible. Then everybody’s happy.

Lesson two: sleep

I have now been programming for mumble years. Not long after I started work at Mozilla, a delightful Canadian journalist asked me what it was like to work with a group of people “so much younger than myself.” While I am not actually that old, I am old enough to have picked up some skills. One of these skills is the ability to survive on 4-to-6 hours of sleep a night for extended periods. Although this is not my favorite hobby, I have gained a certain level of mastery.

Another thing I’ve learned is that surviving on 4-to-6 hours of sleep a night for an extended period makes you mildly deranged. With parenting, as with programming, it is sometimes required. When you achieve a certain level of derangement, you find that very silly things start to sound like good ideas, or they just start to happen, whether you intended them to or not. For example, you find yourself accidentally filing the baby in the filing cabinet or implementing a new framework.

This is a lesson both programmers and parents can learn from the military: sleep when you can do so safely, and as often as possible. If you can snatch a few minutes of nap here and there, it may not make you feel a lot better, but your degraded IQ will recover somewhat.

Lesson three: with great power comes great responsibility

When you set out to implement a new web app or raise a child — and yes, I do realize these things are not quite on the same scale — you have a great responsibility to do a good job. Otherwise, everyone who has to interact with your app or child in the future will curse your name. Repeatedly. Your baby — whether it is human or code — is totally dependent upon you to do a good job.

Lesson four: it takes a village

On that note, it is important to realize that it is very hard to raise a child or write a web app completely on your own. Some things are better done with a little help from your friends. Whether that help is providing a role model, a shoulder to cry on, advice when you just don’t know what to do, or purely someone to vent to, it really helps to surround yourself with people you can rely on.

That summarizes the commonalities between parenting and programming that I have learned over the last 7 weeks. I suspect I have a great deal more to learn.

One final note: If anyone approaches you to work on a web app that will take 18 years, run away as fast as you can, and do not look back.

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