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There are two kind of programmers: Nihilists and Optimists

The nihilist programmer takes as axiomatic that their product is already broken. It is in constant flux, poorly defined, the product of compromise in design, and inevitably compromised in implementation. Even more, that it will remain this way, by its nature, forever. The nihilist programmer starts from these axioms and then decides what to do. What to do? The least amount of change possible. Limit exposure, limit effect. Get to the next checkpoint.

The particular medicine isn’t a bad one, per se. There’s value in those limits. What’s bad, I think, is the ethos. If a thing is undefinable, you will naturally resist efforts to define it. If a thing is forever in flux, you will resist efforts to freeze it. If a thing is composed exclusively of compromise, you will resist efforts to make decisive decisions. And if a thing will never be good, you will resist efforts to make it good.

In this sense the nihilist programmer ensures their travels on a dead-end road are as comfortable, and perhaps long-lived, as possible.

The optimist programmer, in contrast, seeks to change course.

The optimist programmer assumes the thing can be good, and constantly initiates to make it good. That the thing shouldn’t contain compromise, and should reflect clear decisions. That the thing should be defined and then built, and not rock forever on a sea of changing assumptions. That the thing ought rightly be defined, that its true form is definitional.

What’s bad about the optimist programmer isn’t the ethos, but the practice. In reality, nothing is fixed, and everything is in flux. By straining to define and then build, the optimist programmer inevitably builds the wrong thing. Or, perhaps more often, nothing at all, as the thing never escapes the design stage.

Successful projects live somewhere in the middle. But I think all good software is fundamentally optimistic. Not that it won’t contain compromise, or technical debt to be repaid, but that it doesn’t start from the assumption that nothing is definite and all hope is lost. Optimistic software makes decisive claims, executes on them, and owns the compromises it makes. Optimistic software can be critiqued for doing the wrong thing, but not for doing it poorly. I am an optimist programmer and I want to write optimistic software.


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