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Don't Be a Lazy Programmer Like Matthew Jones Isn't

Matthew Jones recently wrote a blog article titled Be The Laziest Programmer You Can Be. I like Matthew's articles, and I like this one in a way, but I'm going to make a case that Matthew's completely wrong in his definition of lazy. This is one of those subjects that rankles me, kind of like computer people routinely misusing the word "deprecate."

The traditional statemnent of Matthew's gist is:

If you want to find the most efficient way to do a job, give it to a lazy person.

Matthew states his thesis as:

lazy programmers want to do as little work as possible right now. But they also want to do as little future work as possible,...

He's absolutely right about the first part, doing as little work as possible right now. But he's absolutely wrong about the second, that lazy programmers are concerned about the future. They aren't, that's the problem. And, they're not efficient, they just get by.

Examination

Let's hit the dictionary first.

adjective, la·zi·er, la·zi·est.

  1. averse or disinclined to work, activity, or exertion; indolent.
  2. causing idleness or indolence:
    a hot, lazy afternoon.
  3. slow-moving; sluggish:
    a lazy stream.
  4. (of a livestock brand) placed on its side instead of upright.

verb (used without object), la·zied, la·zy·ing.
5. to laze.

"Averse or disinclined to work." This isn't decisive, because one could argue--as Matthew does--that a disincilation to work could extend toward future work. What does science have to say? [Emphases mine]

A person is being lazy if he is able to carry out some activity that he ought to carry out, but is disinclined to do so because of the effort involved. Instead, he carries out the activity perfunctorily; or engages in some other, less strenuous or less boring activity; or remains idle. In short, he is being lazy if his motivation to spare himself effort trumps his motivation to do the right or expected thing.

The Psychology of Laziness | Psychology Today

Other aspects of laziness that are discussed in a brief review of the psychology:

  • Procrastination "Laziness and procrastination are similar in that they both involve a lack of motivation. But, unlike a lazy person, a procrastinator aspires and intends to complete the task and, moreover, does eventually complete it, albeit at a higher cost to himself."
  • Evolution Our nomadic ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources and to fight or flee enemies and predators. Expending effort on anything other than short-term advantage could jeopardize their very survival.... it made little sense to think long term.
  • Effort and Reward "In most cases, it is deemed painful to expend effort on long-term goals that do not provide immediate gratification. For a person to embark on a project, he has to value the return on his labour more than his loss of comfort. The problem is that he is disinclined to trust in a return that is both distant and uncertain. Because self-confident people are more apt to trust in the success and pay-off of their undertakings (and may even overestimate their likely returns), they are much more likely to overcome their natural laziness."

And, from 7 Reasons Why Laziness Is a Myth | Psychology Today:

  1. Fear of failure. "Many people get in their own way by postponing the pursuit of goals,""
  2. Fear of success. "This cousin of the fear of failure is very real: Many people are unconsciously worried that they’ll succeed in ways potentially threatening to others. So they avoid conflict by not moving forward."
  3. Desire for nuture. "some of us don’t know how to ask for what we want directly—so we act useless as a way of getting others to do things for us."
  4. Fear of expectations. "One of my patients rarely made plans and established herself as “lazy” so that other people would plan for her."
  5. Passive-aggresive communication. "People who avoid conflict often bury their dissatisfied feelings. They may communicate them indirectly through “laziness,” slacking in a way that will upset another person."
  6. Need for relaxation. "Many people erroneously assume that they should always be going full steam, and chastise themselves for being “lazy” when their body and mind shut down in protest."
  7. Depression. "In criticizing himself for “laziness,” a man may miss signs that he is depressed and needs treatment."

This picture of laziness is much clearer. According to established social and science understandings, a lazy person:

  • Avoids doing hard work now, and so does the easiest thing he can get away with.
  • Isn't influenced by (or concerned with) future consequences.

Here are some attributes of a lazy developer1:

  • Doesn't write thorough unit tests. Tests, if written, allow him to fit the requirement, but don't catch enough problems.
  • Doesn't use consistent naming conventions. He uses whatever occurs to him at the moment.
  • Only updates Scrum/project estimates and completions if pushed to do so, and probably days after the fact.
  • Makes no or cursory source control comments upon commit.
  • Source code only works on his machine, unless he's been forced otherwise through continuous integration.

Refutation

Is Matthew a "lazy" programmer? No, of course, not, but now I'm in for a pound so let's go through his article point-by-point.

"why don't I hear you typing?"
Matthew got in trouble for being lazy for not typing enough. This was a management failure, pure and simple. And it's proven by the company having an overtime-oriented culture. I'll bet they were lazy because they weren't planning ahead, as Matthew was. That guy was wrong and a jerk.

Lazy programmers are good programmers. They don't do more work than absolutely necessary.

No. The confusion here is in the word "necessary." For Matthew, "necessary" means "do it right so we reduce doing it again." Lazy programmers define "necessary" as "required by something external." Let me call this one out.

Refactoring doesn't exist for the lazy programmer. It's not in his vocabulary.

Lazy programmers abhor redundancy

Just the opposite. A lazy programmer will copy/paste code all day, because he's a) finishing more work right now, and b) doesn't expect to have to fix the code later.

Lazy programmers explain their decisions. They write thorough comments

Nope. Lazy programmers, concerned only with the present, see explanations as a waste of time. "Working" code should be good enough, they reason.

A lazy programmer is not attached to his future self.

Lazy programmers automate everything that can possibly be automated

That would take foresight. I've seen this repeatedly, programmers who are too lazy to encapsulate a method, or write a utility to automate. They'll instead do it the long, hard way every time. Their justification? "Writing that utility will take too long!" (This thinking is further exacerbated by deadline-oriented management.)

Lazy programmers teach people more junior than them, partially so those junior people can do the work instead.

Half of this is right. Lazy programmers want to get other people doing their work. But the way they do it is to claim they're too busy to fix their own code, and too busy to explain clearly, so just figure it out.

Lazy programmers expect to be replaced.

Well, they should expect this, but are not only surprised when it happens, but also angry, because they think they're doing what was expected.

Be lazy. It's OK.

No, it isn't, because you're not. Programmers!, don't conflate laziness with other problems. And don't beat yourselves up, either! Get help with beliefs and root causes. Learn to value strategic thinking, to give yourself a positive boost about creating that automation utility. To see your future self grinning like mad and saying "This used to take the other guy four hours. I automated it and it's done in four minutes."

It [laziness] takes practice,

It should be pretty clear by now, but lazy people don't practice. I play violin. I'm prety good. But one reason I don't play violin really, really well is because I only practiced enough to get by. (I also didn't know about deliberate practice, but that's another story.) A lazy person, by definition, avoids effort.

Excellence requires continual effort

Is Laziness Bad?

No. Well, maybe. The behavior's not helpful, and often harmful. The thing is, lazy people aren't bad. It's not a disease, and it's not a character or moral defect. As noted above, there are people who get huge amounts done, but if they rest they demean themselves as lazy. That's unhealthy.

Laziness is a habit. And habits can be broken.

Then What is Matthew Jones?

That's pretty easy. Matthew is an effective developer. All of the positive traits he ascribes to laziness are in fact hallmarks of high-performing software engineers. Matthew:

  • Is concerned with how his current actions impact his future self.
  • Is likewise concerned with making his code easier for other developers.
  • Plans. Then executes. Then reviews and improves. He practices kaizen. He refactors mercilessly.
  • Coaches others and, I hope, is always willing to be confronted with opposition, otherwise I probably wouldn't have taken the time to write all this down. Because, Matthew...
  • Is wrong about what it means to be a lazy programmer, and I hope he revises his pitch. It's great to help programmers not be lazy, but I don't think redefining a word to mean its opposite is a good idea.

Matthew, I have a feeling I'd like you if we sat down for a beer. If you're ever in Denver, let's find out. You take your craft seriously, and have a light-hearted writing voice. It's from that mindset that I'm telling you, firmly, kindly: Matthew, buddy, you are not a lazy programmer!


  1. Sorry that these are all in the masculine. Unfortunately, 90% of programmers are guys, so I'm writing to the majority audience.

Personal Reflections on Removing Distractions for Improved Productivity

I've done a couple of experiments with reducing distractions (here and here). Since then, I've taken the weed-whacker to Facebook, only check the news a couple of times a day, and (try to) restrict my Netflix.

What does this mean for me professionally and personally?

Facebook

First of all, I don't miss Facebook one bit. The research is pretty clear that social media makes us unhappy. What alarms me in retrospect is that Facebook use seems like an addiction: something bad for you, but you can't stop doing. Consider these stats from a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on social media usage:

  • 69% of adults in the US said "they use such services at least once a day."
  • And yet, "82% of Americans believe social media is a waste of time."
  • 57% said social media "does more to divide us."
  • 55% said "social media does more to spread lies and falsehoods."

I've been pretty careful for a long time about what services I sign up for. I can't deny the influence of Twitter, but I never understood the appeal of reading people's mundane, off-the-cuff thoughts, or publishing my own. I never signed up. Likewise, no SnapChat.

In short, I only had Facebook to deal with. I was a little worried about losing contact with my FB friends, but realized a) I only had about thirty FB friends, and b) that worry was a symptom of the FB disease. The solution was easy, I asked all my FB friends via instant messenger if they'd give me their email addresses so I could stay in touch. Many did. Anxiety-crisis averted. I backed up and deleted my account.

What now? That's easy, too. How about I make more real, in-person friends? You know, the kind that research shows actually increase well-being?

News

The news is inherently depressing, and apparently we love it. Even as a kid (back in the three-network days), I hated watching or listening to the TV news because it sounded ugly. This doesn't mean news isn't important. A free, independent press is critical to democracy, and those who vilify it while getting all their "news" from talk radio are, frankly, ignorant and deluded. But there's only so much reporting of the current socio-political awfulness a person should read.

I used a browser blocker to keep me from reading the news during the day for several weeks. I'm pretty good now at only dipping into Google News and NPR a couple of times a day. I know from past experience I can go weeks at a time without checking the news because if something really, really important happens I'm sure I'll hear about it. Here's the way I now see being a news junkie:

The news is like Facebook. Emotionally, it's more like gossip, and is addictive in the same way.

The fact is, I can't do much, if anything, about what's in the news. So why obsess and clamor and complain over what I can't change, when I can fill my life with plenty that I can?

Netflix, et al

This is my bane. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, CWTV, IMDb FreeDive, YouTube...I'm still addicted to streaming media. It's not wrong for me to enjoy a little TV and movies, but it's too often a go-to break from work or other activities. Is this bad? Yep, for the same reasons as above. It keeps me away from real, live social interactions. There's also evidence that watching TV has negative mental effects, while reading has positive effects. (Sorry, I don't have a link to this right now.)

My current solution to this is strict time-blocking. I try to only watch Netflix during certain times of the day.

I know when I'm watching too much TV. I can feel it, and that's compounded by my profession as a software engineer. My job is at the computer, so all together I can end up spending sixteen hours a day on the thing.

Meditation, WOOP, Time-Boxing, Habits: Whew!

Removing distractions has helped my productivity and well-being. But it's not enough. To create a healthier work balance, I needed to retrain my brain. Fortunately, we live in a great time for research into well-being.

Meditation
Proper meditation, where the wandering mind (the Default Mental Network) is stilled, helps not only with mental/emotional health but also distraction. After all, the wandering mind is distraction.

WOOP
This is a great technique for establishing new behaviors and habits. It can be done daily in a few minutes. I've used this to manage overwhelm when facing a large task list.

  1. Identify what you Wish for (the goal)
  2. Imagine and emotionally invest in the Outcome(s). It's valuable to imagine the affect on the future self.
  3. Imagine and emotionally invest in the Obstacle(s). Again, what's the affect on the future self?
  4. Create a simple If-Then Plan. "When this happens, I will do this."

Note: Do not "flip the Os". Imagine outcomes first, then obstacles.

Time-Boxing
I've adopted a 50-10 time box. Read my blog article.

Habits
There are great books on how to break and make habits, based on science. For those who love podcasts, here's an interview with the author of Atomic Habits.

Final Reflections

I've had to overcome some challenges in the past couple of years. Thankfully, I have a wife who loves me, and my clients have been happy with my work. I enjoy reading about science and well-being, and enjoy even more applying what I learn.

All in all, my experiments have been a success.

Creating a Modern, Practical Résumé

I was recently asked to review a résumé, which gave me a chance to think about the purpose and use of résumés today versus decades ago.

Let me be clear from the start: I'm not an HR professional, so I'm offering only a view of a slice of hiring. Still, as an "old man," I'm fascinated by how such a simple item has changed. Here's most of what I wrote as advice to the person who asked.

I think the purpose of a résumé has changed over the last couple of decades. It used to be the introduction of a person to an organization. But this is far less true today. When applying for a job, you'll be asked to upload your résumé, or enter the information into an online form. Your employment and education will probably be verified by a third party. A résumé is still, though, a useful way to document and present your qualifications.

Your résumé is a way to learn about yourself. It's for discovery as well as presentation.

Let's look at résumés in terms of these desired outcomes:

  • Everything about the résumé makes it easy for employers to find what they need to know
  • Easy to contact
  • Education and employment histories are clear and verifiable
  • Relevant skills receive focus
  • Can be easily imported into a database

Structure

Don't get caught up in formatting at first, it'll just distract from the content. As noted elsewhere, the primary concern for formatting is not how the résumé looks, but how easy it is to convert to electronic data.

Consider a throw-away draft where you really focus on information and not style. I suggest using a plain-text editor such as Microsoft Notepad with these sections.

Contact Information

Professional Mission

Skills

Experience

Education

Within these, just fill in all the info. Figure out how to style the document later. In fact, your résumé should be perfectly readable in plain text.

Contact Information

Keep all contact information together, in a simple format such as this:

Email
Phone
Address
[Your web site]
[LinkedIn profile]

If you include your (professional) web site, be sure it's what you want an employer to see. If you include LinkedIn, make sure that profile is up-to-date.

Professional Mission

This is a key discovery area. What you write here probably won't make it into your résumé directly, but it will influence what you include, how you write your cover letters, where you apply, and how you present yourself at an interview.

This isn't what job you want in the near term, but what your larger desires are. What matters to you? What kind of person do you imagine being in five years? Twenty years? What kind of organization do you want to end up in? What kind of culture?

You can easily spend hours—heck, years—on this, and it'll change over time. Once you've taken a deep dive, summarize your professional mission as "what" and "when." For example, "Within five years, I want to be teaching national courses on academic preparation and success." The more specific, the better.

But what do you include on the résumé? Arguably, nothing. The potential employer assumes you're interested in the position you've applied for. Don't include an Objective for the sake of it. Still, including a brief statement can be valuable. If you do, make it a summary of you. For example:

Experienced college-level tutor in English and Creative Writing, dedicated to helping high school and college students succeed in their learning objectives.

Skills

Think of your skills more specifically in terms of the job(s) you're applying for. You may be tweaking the Skills section depending on the job requirements. Be specific, brief, and use industry language. This area should honestly match up with the job description.

Skills

* Strong interpersonal techniques, including open-ended questions, 
  active listening.
* Apply various learning theories: VARK model, Transfer, Gestalt
* Create subject-specific and student-specific study guides

Contrast this to the skills you'd highlight if you were applying to an education tech writing job. They'd be different. So, yes, you may be creating different résumés for different places.

Be sure that whatever your write here, you're telling the truth. In an interview, you will be asked about them.

(By the way, the VARK learning model is baloney. Don't use it. The Myth of Learning Styles - Atlantic Monthly )

Experience

All experience should be verifiable. That means someone can be called. So, make it easy for the verifier. Include the organization or individual's phone number. Experience should start with the most recent, and include:

  • Where
  • From – To using month and year
  • Phone Number
  • What you did
Experience

Colorado State University-Pueblo
123-555-1234
4/2017 – 7/2017

*   Organized and ran weekly tutoring sessions for fellow students
*   Created and distributed. . . .

Be careful of being wordy. Don't pad. Be concrete and specific. Think of the person reading the résumé: she just wants the facts to decide whether to interview you.

Education

You don't need to include a phone number, but do use a "most to least" format. School > Degree > Graduation Date

Education

University of Colorado Denver
Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, 9/2018

Formatting

This is where people used to really differentiate, and still try to. They get hung up on how the résumé looks, what paper they use, etc. What's important is clarity and—in my opinion—the ability to import. Manually styling makes it hard to do the latter. To make it easy for the machine, use consistent header styles. Styles also let you easily change the look of your résumé.

If you don't know how to work with styles in your word processer, look it up! Here's an article to get you started.

At minimum:

  • Give each section (contact, skills, etc) a Heading 2 styles.
  • Put school/business names on separate lines.
  • Format dates consistently.
  • Use bullet points consistently.

Beyond the above, be judicious and consistent with how you use bold weight. Are you drawing attention to what matters? (And remember online submission probably won't allow bold, italic, etc.)

Think about this, too: when you need to copy/paste information into an online form, how easy will it be?

I'm not finding a service that lets you check if your résumé is easily parse-able, but you'll know as soon as you apply somewhere that lets you upload your résumé.

Other

I worked for a background check company for several years, so my advice is based on that experience. HR departments outsource their verifications and use third party software to import all résumé information into a database. They don't keep file folders of applications and résumés.

If you check online, you'll find businesses that can produce beautiful résumés. But why bother? Employers are looking at your data. Make it easy to get them that data. (You should still have a nice-looking résumé, though.)

So, what's a person to do when looking for a job and building a career? I'm certainly no expert, but here's what I think.

  • Learn what your strengths are, what you love to do, and find work that lets you do that. The science of well-being shows the job won't make you happy. Using your strengths will.
  • Target the places you want to be. Research them. Make it clear to yourself that you don't just want a job, you want to work here.
  • Walk into an interview prepared to start working immediately. You won't be asked to do that, but it'll affect how you dress and behave.
  • Take two or more copies of your résumé with you. One for you, one for the interviewer if she doesn't have one.
  • Be prepared to ask questions. Take notes during the interview. Your goal is the same as theirs. Do you want to work here?
  • Finally, I think fundamentally a good organization cares about these questions
    • Can the person do the job
    • Will the person do the job
    • Does the person fit.

Best wishes!

References

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