The nomadic programmer

August 6th, 2009

There's this broad metaphor I have, with no conclusions attached – just an attempt to describe dynamics. I've recently shared it with the commie ex-VP school teacher and he liked it, so I thought to share it with a wider audience.

So. One recurring theme in the history of civilization is the conflict between nomadic and settled people. Nomads think that land is for feeding cattle and you move elsewhere once there's nothing left to graze. Villagers figure that land is for growing food, so you settle on it and fertilize it and irrigate it and stuff. Initially, nomads typically dominate the landscape, periodically attacking the settled villagers and taking their crops. However, the settled people eventually accumulate enough surplus to support cities, nation states and standing armies, extending their control to more and more lands and eventually exterminating the nomadic lifestyle altogether.

The way I painted this picture, I tend to side with the hard-working settled folk, the nomads being the parasitic losers I've depicted, and I think most of us civilized humans share similar sentiments. However, in my metaphor I side with the nomadic programmer, at least to a large extent, and I do so because of the meaning my metaphor assigns to "land".

The thing I find analogous to land in programming is problems, because that's where programmers live. Programmers live on (in?) problems in the sense of dealing with broken things most of the time – once something starts working, you move on to something that doesn't. In another sense, large problems or problem areas a programmer deals with define that programmer's territory. The programmer is in immediate demand to the extent that solutions to "his" problems are in demand; problems feed programmers. Strong programmers seek, in one way or another, to expand their responsibility to encompass more problems, and to preserve their existing responsibilities. And so on.

Now if we restate the respective worldviews of nomads and settlers in the terms of this metaphor, we'll get this. Nomads think that problems exist for solving them and you move elsewhere once there's nothing left to graze. Settlers think that problems exist for growing them, so they settle on them and fertilize them and irrigate them and stuff.

And now you can see why I'm inclined to sympathize with the nomadic programmer. Two other things fueling this sympathy are issues of personality to be discussed soon, and the fate of the nomad to be discussed immediately. And while the nomad is no longer the parasite, rest assured that he's still, in the long run, the loser.

Initially – in a young and small organization – nomadic programmers tend to dominate the landscape. There are more problems than people around. The nomadic programmer travels from one urgent problem to another, grazing through them as fast as he can. Occasionally he stumbles upon a settler who has settled on a problem near the nomad's territory and grown crops of code there. Well, if the problem occupied by the settler becomes urgent, or if the crops stand in the way of solving the nomad's adjacent urgent problem, the nomad will go ahead and brutally solve the settler's problem, wiping out his crops. The politics of the invasion will be trivial – a promise to deliver by the nomad carries lots of weight at this stage and the settler will not issue a counter-promise (to deliver in his own way) because he's a peaceful code-growing villager who isn't into stress which necessarily comes with delivering quickly.

However, the time goes by and sure enough, the settled people accumulate quite some surplus. What you grow on land is surplus wheat; what you grow on problems is surplus code. Code that wouldn't naturally grow on a problem – but now that the problem was fertilized by the original settlers, they've grown enough code on it to support whole cities, a nation state, and a standing army of programmers, all making a living by fiddling with this code.

The nomad starts running out of pasture. Sure enough, there are lots of problems just like there used to be. But you can no longer solve them because (1) now it's the majority and not a minority of problems that are already owned by someone (growing them rather than solving them) and (2) in most cases invasion is no longer an option. Now that the problem is owned by a nation state, responsible for lots of code and with lots of people working on that code, the nomad's promise to deliver quickly carries very little weight compared to the danger of irritating the sovereign. While it is quite likely still true that a nomad will probably deliver more quickly than the whole nation state team, the nomad will not be able to take over the entire responsibility of the team. (It is possible that the single reason for the latter is the problems grown by the team itself and that a few nomads could in fact handle the original problem. But it is irrelevant since problems that could have been avoided are no less real than problems that couldn't.)

So if the organization, by some decision making mechanism, lets the nomad invade the territory of the settled team and solve the stupid problem, and then the offended team, by some decision making mechanism, fights back by effectively going on strike, there is nothing the nomad will be able to offer the organization at this point. Of course it doesn't have to come to this, just like political conflicts don't have to come to full-scale wars, or personal conflicts to fist fights or court hearings. It's enough for the worst case scenario to be likely to work out in favor of A rather than B to shift the balance decisively in favor of A. Even if neither A nor B nor anyone making decisions affecting A and B actually think in terms of this scenario, things tend to evolve and adapt such that decisions are made in favor of A. And in our case, the nomadic programmer is B.

Solving problems just isn't the big thing in this organization anymore, just like the quality of life experienced by the inhabitants of some territory isn't the main theme in international politics. Perhaps there are ways to improve the quality of life in Siberia, however this is not nearly as important politically as the fact that there's already a guy exclusively responsible for the quality of life in Siberia. Perhaps Socialism with Chinese Characteristics could yield improvements in the lives of Siberians that Managed Democracy could not, however, if the Chinese try to act on this assumption, there will be a nuclear war. If what remains of a nomadic tribe somewhere in the region makes a similar attempt, then it will remain no more.

The disgruntled nomadic programmer reduces his ambition to merely being left alone to wander the remaining wilderness. However, this option is no more real for him now than the option of being left alone was available to the settler in the old days. Back then, the settlers were never safe since a nomad could always bump into them in an attempt to solve a related problem, and if their stuff got in the way, he'd rewrite or delete/disable their stuff. Now it is the nomad who is never safe since the nation states keep expanding their responsibilities into neighboring problems – having enough people to have some of them free for that some of the time.

(Actually having even partially idle workers on a team leaves few satisfying alternatives to an attempt at expanding the team's responsibilities since other teams are always happy to seize an idle worker. Likewise, back in the old days the nomadic programmer had few satisfying alternatives to invading and solving others' problems since otherwise he couldn't keep his promises to deliver. It's not (just) the intentions that fuel wars, it's (also) the situation.)

The nation states seeking to expand won't fight each other since the nomad is a much easier target, not having resources (time and reports) to look over his entire territory. Once a nation state team managed to take over some of that ever-shrinking territory, the nomad will never gain it back. Increasingly, the nomad has to reach compromises with neighboring nation states whenever his work is related to their work. Then it turns out that in order to be able to work on what he wants at all, he has to do it the way a chief commander or an officer of a nation state team wants him to do it – and then that in order to work on anything at all, he has to report to such a manager.

At this point the nomadic programmer can use his reputation and seniority to get pseudo-promoted to a non-productive position. Alternatively, he can actually become a report of a nation state team manager with whom the relationship is likely already strained – and his seniority, reputation and ambitions won't make the transition into this particular position of a report any smoother. Alternatively he can quit. His failure is now complete.

(It may sound like a natural thing for a nomad to change jobs fairly frequently – part of a lifestyle rather than the failure of that lifestyle. However, nomadic programmers are those who like to travel from problem to problem – not from job to job; some like the latter but some don't. A new job at a new place means a temporary, but possibly significant loss of confidence and efficiency. An African nomad won't necessarily welcome a relocation to Alaska.)

As I've said above, I have reasons having to do with my personality to side with the nomadic programmer, especially at the stage of mounting pressure from nation state teams. The people I tend to relate to most easily seem to be those who prefer freedom to power. A talented freedom-seeker with a strong sense of responsibility will accumulate, well, responsibilities much more quickly than reports – a lot of territory to wander, and no standing army to protect it. (The problem with reports is that you take their freedom by telling them what to do and they take your freedom through your responsibility for their actions; who wants reports?) Since many freedom-lovers disdain politics, they won't respect international borders – a problem should be solved, dammit; hence they're likely to initiate invasions.

However, while this means that I personally will tend to find myself sympathizing with particular nomadic programmers, this does not mean that theirs is the right way or something. For example, it is unclear which share of programming problems out there can really be "solved" – grazed through and left alone – and which problems actually require continuous care and gardening that a true nomad is not likely to supply. Also, whether there's a "solution" you only need to "maintain" or an "infrastructure" you want to "extend", the code needs a permanent owner. I don't believe in collective code ownership any more than in collective ownership of anything else – what it usually means is that everybody collectively fights over something. Therefore I think that ownership should generally be respected, and so a compromise which is, from a technical viewpoint, quite moronic, can otherwise be a great thing – a belief outside the nomad's way.

So while I know where my sympathies lie, I don't know which camp I'm in and this is why this metaphor doesn't come with any conclusions, just the dynamics. In fact I'd rather leave it without conclusions but I wouldn't mind expanding more on the dynamics. For example, some – but not all – settled civilizations were actually started by nomads enslaving argicultural villagers and settling among them. Apparently a similar distinction can be made between nation state teams of programmers; it is then interesting whether differences in their behavior can be traced to their different origins. Perhaps a person more entertained than appalled by the sort of perspective on the adventurous lives of programmers here presented is also the kind of person more entertained than appaled by the history of mankind in general and so could help develop this line of thought based on his knowledge of history. Could be fun.

Update (2009-08-18) – Chuck Moore: "I’ve met too many people who want to make a career out of a project instead of completing it" – the nomad's view of the settlers. Nomadism is apparent in other writing by Chuck Moore – his disdain for "complexity" (which implies dependency on large teams of people you ought to manage, annoying constraints imposed by systems made by someone else and other things nomads don't like), his firm opinion that distinct projects should have distinct code bases (customizability and "reuse" imply complexity and otherwise reduce the chances to "hermetically close" and truly complete a project), etc.