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Code is the tool, not the goal

26 February 2024

I heard a story about a health-sector project where a sole contractor created a database and frontend to hold patient data for some department. By all accounts, this contractor did a horrible job. Staff would frequently forget to input a patient's data into the system, and even when they did, the system didn't hold all the information that staff required.

One of the nurses, realising the new system's inadequacies, took it upon herself to create a spreadsheet to do the job instead. It turns out she could do a better job than the contractor, in less time, at zero cost. She had no coding ability, but she did have one thing the contractor never had: a focus on the actual problem. She kept the spreadsheet up-to-date, and ensured it contained all the information required by staff.

Why did the contractor fail? Because they never understood the problem. The problem required more than just code: it required a process to ensure that all patient's data got added and a better understanding of what data staff needed.

It seems so obvious when described like this, and we may dismiss this particular contractor as an idiot - they probably are, and rich too. But I think this lack of focus on the problem is an epidemic amongst programmers. I think most programmers are much more concerned with things like letting their favoured programming paradigm needlessly limit the design space they have to work with or finding a poor excuse to use an obscure language feature. They don't care about the problem. They are obsessive about the code.

While they focus on the code, they miss the obvious: users want solutions, not code. Code is the tool with which we produce and maintain a solution. Users don't care if your code impresses your peers. They only care that it works and does what they want.

And yet programmers spend inordinate amounts of time on minutia or creating elaborate, entirely unnecessary abstractions, or worse still getting caught in a groundhog-day doom loop of new approaches for unmeasured benefits, each approach introducing new unforeseen problems that require yet another new approach... discarding the expertise with the previous approach, and forcing them to learn and deal with the idiosyncratic issues that inevitably arise with the new approach - at least until the next approach appears.

To solve a problem like the nurse did requires humility. She found a simple elegant solution to a relatively simple problem. She didn't reach for a sonic screwdriver when a simple butter knife did the job.

Maybe one day, a programmer's skill won't be judged by the cleverness of their code, but by the only true metric for programming skill: the amount of user value they ship. For now, companies will continue to feel the need to keep programmers on a tight leash, and for good reason. That could be avoided if programmers didn't fundamentally misunderstand their role. For now, however, I suspect the previously-mentioned contractor is far from the last programmer who will be outshone by a nontechnical person.

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