A Programmer's Guide to the Real World

By Commenter Minignong on at

It’s hard work being a geek. In fact it’s exhausting. What I present to you here, dear reader, is a defensive piece on the side of us poor geeks caught observing the world through a slightly-altered version of what regular people see.

Being a programmer, my job is to solve problems; to make things efficient, and to be analytical. I’m good at my job and have no problems during office hours. The problem comes when I put down my keyboard, stepping out of the office confused, bleary-eyed and being forcefully inserted into an entirely new world. It’s not quite as dramatic as being born again, perhaps, but it is akin to loading a new computer game. Except in this new game, you’re not a superhero; rockstar coder, or a warrior in his own right, able to fix any problem with sufficient whiteboard pens and caffeine.

No, the character that loads at the end of the working day is just you, living your life in the real world. All the achievements you earn throughout the day count for absolutely nothing in the real world. Maybe they would if you know someone geeky enough to appreciate what you are talking about. It’s hard to tell some non-geek, non-programmer why your latest design allows for amazing extensibility, ensuring minimal maintenance in on-boarding new customers without a confused look being your reward. It doesn’t make for good pillow talk. It’s just downright not interesting.

For your efforts, you have earned an empty expression; some glazed eyes; a human not responding. Your level 79 programming god? He’s about a level 2 human in most people’s eyes. For reference, a newborn baby is a level 1. Or should that be level 0? (Programming joke #1.)

It would be nice if the traits that made you desirable as a programmer appealed in the real world. Pedantry isn’t on anyone’s must-have list when searching for an ideal partner, however.

“My ideal partner must be fit, have a great sense of humour and will analyse everything I say for accuracy and grammar compliance.”

How about your refusal to round numbers? “I’ll be there in 14 minutes,” is a legitimate response. If I know 14 minutes is a better estimate than 15, why the hell would I round up? Deliberately lose precision...throw away data without good reason, in this economy...are you mad? If you ask me a question, it is my responsibility to get you your answer -- fully formed, caveated where necessary, and accompanied with a list of assumptions I am making. If you don’t need that accuracy, you throw it away. You’ll rue the day.

When I bought my house, the legal documents produced by my lawyer was over 10 pages in unintelligible legal talk. This was their standard printout, given to every client they’ve ever had. I found a mistake in it of course. I read “£2,500.000” and it failed my validation. Is that an error because it had an extra 0 on the end or is that an error because the decimal point should have been a comma? “I can’t believe no one has ever spotted that before,” I was told. This, buried in thousands of meaningless words, stands out like a sore thumb to me. I can’t read a phone number without checking it has the right number of digits, and adheres to the right format. I can’t watch an advert without reading the small print. My brain is brilliant at doing things I don’t need. Go figure.

You can’t turn it off either. The internet is full of geeks who pour over every word of an article hoping to find some mistakes. Yes, since you are reading a tech blog, you are probably one of them. Gizmodo UK has been kind enough to provide you with a space below to annihilate this article. The fact that this is a manifestation of my thoughts and dreams shouldn’t deter you. Adorn yourself with your finest dream-stomping boots and stomp away. That’s what I would do.

Speaking of mistakes, I do love when the oddities spill over into the real world though. I recently picked up an item in a supermarket labelled as “Men,s Gloves”. Is this a mistake, an innocuous typo? I’m sure your average person would assume so. I go deeper. I figure it was typed on a system which strips single quotation marks, probably a system with an SQL database concerned with SQL injection, written in the mid '90s. The guy using this system, he found himself with a moral dilemma: type up “Mens Gloves” and die a little inside, or throw in a substitute character instead, a little bit of rebellion against his faulty system for the greater good. This man, a man that so many thousands have failed to even visualise, this man is a hero to me. He refused to sacrifice his integrity; he wanted the world to know his difficulty, and refused to bow down. This is why I struggle to do the weekly shopping unsupervised.

The big problem is the geek spectrum. You have the truly geeky on one end, who lack the ability to talk with normal people. On the other end, you have the normal people who aren’t geeky at all. If you lie on either side of this spectrum you have no problem; people know what to expect from you. If you’re like me however, you’ll find yourself somewhere in that spectrum. You’ll find yourself in the geek uncanny valley. A level of normality such that people expect you to cope with the real world, but a level of geekiness that makes doing so difficult. A lonely place is the geek uncanny valley; if there are other inhabitants, by its very definition, you’ll struggle to find them and they’ll struggle to tell you they are present. If you shout “hello” loud enough though, you might just hear the whispering of an echo back: “Hello...world...” (That’s programming joke #2. Don’t worry if you didn’t get it; it isn’t a very good one.)

Perhaps the next time someone tells you they don’t know what planet you live on, or they can’t understand why you are so awkward, you can point them at this article. You can assure them that your weirdness is not your fault; it is your career-training bleeding through into the real world, clouding your judgement. You can say, “it isn’t just me” and know someone else out there appreciates that the real world is hard to compute. Or perhaps no one else does feel this way and I am alone with it. Just me and the gloves guy. Don’t worry gloves guy; we’ll always have each other.

If there is one thing we’ve hopefully all learned today, it is that a geek’s mind is a weird and wonderful place. Just because what you observe on the outside is a confused idiot or veritable fuckwit, staring at a pair of gloves, doesn’t mean that weirdo isn’t a champion in his office. In his natural environment. The next time you check your phone; open an app; get a train, or board a plane, you are using a system built by that weirdo. Worse, you are using a collection of systems built by a collection of those weirdos forced to work together. So it is best for everyone if you just assume him to be a genius and don’t ask him what he is thinking.

You don’t want to know, and he couldn’t explain it to you if you asked.

Craig "Minignong" Russell is a Scotland-based Software Engineer working for a global technology company. Obsessed with all things tech (mobiles especially), chats and follows are always welcomed. He can be followed on Google+ and Twitter, and has an occasionally-updated blog.

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