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Why Programming Is Fun

David is Vice President of Developer Relations and Chief Evangelist for Borland Software. He can be contacted at http://blogs.borland .com/davidi/.

My first computer class was Fortran programming. I was an Aeronautical Engineering major at the time, and wanted to be part of the U.S. space program. But then the news hit about job layoffs in the aerospace industry, and I realized I probably wouldn't have a job waiting for me. Luckily, I also discovered that I thoroughly enjoyed keypunching by my program card decks, checking the JCL cards and the program code to make sure it had a good chance of working before submitting the deck. (IBM 360/40 turnaround time for jobs was painfully long during the day and even longer near the end of the quarter.)

Because I was having so much fun in the Fortran class, I went to the head of the Computer Science Department, who told me that computers were going to be everywhere and that I would always have a job. I was set on a course for 37 years (and counting) of continuous fun.

Still, having tired of long turnaround times and waiting lines for the ASR33 teletype to the timesharing system, I longed for my own "personal" computer. That changed in 1975 when I bought an IMSAI 8080 computer kit and, with soldering iron in hand, put it together and turned it on. It didn't work. Reminding myself that I was a software guy, I took the computer to the Computer Doctor in Los Angeles (better known as George Tate), who fixed some cold solder joints and recommended a Godbout Electronics S-100 bus terminator card. I was on the road to personal computing.

Coincidentally in 1975, Fred Brooks published The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (I still have my original dog-eared copy) where on page 7 (in the "Joys of the Craft" chapter), he listed the five reasons why programming is fun:

  • The sheer joy of making things.
  • The pleasure of making things that are useful to other people.
  • The fascination of fashioning complex puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts.
  • The joy of always learning.
  • The delight of working in a tractable medium.

I agree completely with Brooks' reasons why programming is fun—and then some. Moreover, I would add the following to Brooks' list, especially considering the advent of PCs and the Internet:

  • The enjoyment of working with other programmers in a team.
  • Being able to play with leading-edge computer hardware.
  • Helping to debug complex software systems that someone else built.
  • Building developer tools that are useful to others and that I can use myself.
  • Meeting and communicating with top industry experts in the software field.
  • Using the Internet to collaborate with other developers on projects and problems.
  • Having my own PCs with lots of megahertz of speed and loads of megabytes of memory and disk space.
  • Getting paid to have fun.
  • Being able to program anywhere, anytime, with my choice of platform, programming language, and architecture.

Upon posting some thoughts on my blog, I received more items for the list from other developers:

  • Because it's a combination of intelligent and creative work.
  • Being some kind of nerdy superhero.
  • Nearly instant gratification.
  • The pride of seeing my work used by other people.
  • The thing about it that really hooks me is taking a machine that was designed for no purpose in particular and making it do anything I want.
  • The benefit that it brings to users in making their lives easier.

One comment and one quote deserve special mention:

  • "A favorite programming moment is when I get to fix a bug in code that already has a good unit test. Such work is often akin to putting golf balls into a neutron star's gravity well; I get this can't-go-wrong feeling."—from Kristofer Skaug.
  • "If it isn't fun and profitable, what the hell are you doing in the business?" by Robert Townsend, Up the Organization—submitted by Jim Roberts.

I'm sure all of us have our favorite reasons why programming is fun. If you want to share them with the world, you can post a comment on my blog at http://blogs.borland.com/davidi/archive/ 2006/08/19/26828.aspx.

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