Why Is Programming Fun?

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, Anniversary Edition (2nd Edition), after leaving it sitting on my dresser for ages. The book is a collection of essays about software design, the most famous of which became the book’s title—expressing the fundamental idea that adding personnel does not necessarily allow a project to be completed faster, just as nine women cannot produce a single baby in one month.

That particular essay, and probably several others, is worthy of a separate discussion; but one Frederick Brooks eloquently expresses has been on my mind for several years.

To be honest, I love my job. (Now, this isn’t to say I wouldn’t rather be paid to travel the world, build with Lego, or quest in World of WarCraft.) I can’t think of anything I’d rather do as a career than be a programmer, except maybe astronaut or Supreme Dictator of the Western Hemisphere. I had been mulling over exactly why this is for a very long time. Frederick P. Brooks has expressed what I feel far more eloquently than I believe I am able:

The Joys of the Craft

Why is programming fun? What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward?

First is the sheer joy of making things. As the child delights in his mud pie, so the adult enjoys building things, especially things of his own design. I think this delight must be an image of God’s delight in making things, a delight shown in the distinctness and newness of each leaf and each snowflake.

Second is the pleasure of making things that are useful to other people. Deep within, we want others to use our work and to find it helpful. In this respect the programming system is not essentially different from the child’s first clay pencil holder “for Daddy’s office.”

Third is the fascination of fashioning complex puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts and watching them work in subtle cycles, playing out the consequences of principles built in from the beginning. The programmed computer has all the fascination of the pinball machine or the jukebox mechanism, carried to the ultimate.

Fourth is the joy of always learning, which springs from the nonrepearing nature of the task. In one way or another the problem is ever new, and its solver learns something: sometimes practical, sometimes theoretical, and sometimes both.

Finally, there is the delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures. (As we shall see later, this very tractability has its own problems.)

Yet the program construct, unlike the poet’s words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.

Programming then is fun because it gratifies creative longings built deep within us and delights sensibilities we have in common with all men.

I also loved the way Brooks closes his preface: “Soli Deo gloria—To God alone be glory.” This isn’t a perspective one generally finds in books about software.

(Excerpt from Frederick P. Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, Anniversary Edition (2nd Edition), © 1995, Addison-Wesley Longman, Inc., p. 7.)

3 Replies to “Why Is Programming Fun?”

  1. That position has been filled, however, the Eastern Hemisphere is up for grabs…I can’t do it all.

  2. Programming is in essence a form of “metaphor.” God has made us ALONE like HIM. He created a world that for us and HIM is full of metaphors of the Kingdom of God. No animal has ever succeed in surpassing the age four language level. Why? Because that’s the age language is which children understand “Her eyes are glued to the book.” Even “The position has been filled” is a metaphor.

    And how can we understand the KINGDOM of GOD. Parables . . . a big metaphor or simile.

    In the Bible “light” is not little photon balls hitting the page of a book. The Biblical metaphor is of “anything that keeps you from stumbling along the way.” A lamp, a book, wisdom, the sun and moon. Jesus is the ‘LIGHT of the World’ because we finally SEE what life, and love is really about. He is the WAY (road of life.). You get the picture?

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