Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Is Harry Fairhead being serious when he says that Hackathons are dangerous? Does he really want to see the zen put back into code? What exactly is the objection to being cool?



Hackathons are a growing phenomena and not just in software.

What is a hackathon?

In principle it is where a group of enthusiastic software or hardware people get together to create something.

It sounds great doesn't it?

What could be nicer or more positive than generating a community spirit of endeavour and what could be better for programming and technology in general. We need fresh blood and if hackathons bring in the kids who am I to put a damper on the whole idea? But.....

There has long been a split in the identity of software developers. You can think of it as two competing archetypes. The first is the serious study of software, typified by computers science, working alone and often working late into the night. This archetype is in itself a spectrum ranging from the mathematical computer scientist and software engineer to the socially inept loner working on something no one understands until is it released onto the world - if it ever is. This archetype is distinctly uncool because it is the product of silent isolated study and often but not always deep thoughts about logic, design, code and more...

In many ways, like it or not, this archetype is closer to what we really do - be it in hardware or software. Despite what the extreme programmers will tell you programming is not really a collaborative enterprise and you can see this is true from the lengths we have to go to in an effort to make it so. At best we can work as a team on a project by breaking it down into self contained chunks that each programmer goes off and works on alone and isolated - until they check in their code and find it brings down the entire system.

And don't mention pair programming as an example of collaboration - it just isn't. So you think that one guy sitting creating code while the other perches on a chair commenting on how it should be done is collaboration. If so you really have been out of polite society for far too long! Pair programming is an example of the "actor-critic" paradigm from AI. The actor is the programmer typing in the code and the critic is the passive observer providing course corrections as part of a feedback loop.

Let's get this clear once and for all - programming is an isolated sort of activity best suited to people who can work on their own. This brings us  to the hackathon and the second archetype.

It just isn't cool to be isolated and working on something so intently that the world just passes you by. So what we need is the rock programmer or programming as jazz. We need an archetype based on the good looking guy or gal who does nothing by way of study or preparation but just does it. They come up with the goods even when the first archetypes have spent years studying the subject and working on the code for years. They walk in, throw down a few comments, type a few lines and its all fixed and the app does not only what it was supposed to (I won't go into the subject of requirements management) and much more. Well it works in the movies and the hackathon promotes the same hyperactive approach to problem solving. Its over hyped and never pauses for a moment to draw breath and consider the problem and how to tackle it.

Programming as jazz, i.e. free form composition is just silly but very seductive. After all its our chance to look not just socially acceptable but cool. The whole idea is seen at its most amazing when applied to hardware.

At a hardware hackathon people put electronics together like it involved components that don't blow up in a smelly sort of way if you get it wrong.  Yes there is a certain amount of jealousy here - I only have to look at an electronic component for it to fail. But, jealousy aside this just isn't how electronics is done in the real world, not even the real world of hacking.

The same objections apply to software construction but without the obvious burning smells. Throwing together a piece of code that half-implements something isn't true to the real world. It also hides the well known fact that 90% of the effort in building any software is needed in the last 10% of the implementation - which at a hackathon is usually left for another day.

What are we to do?

In this case you are damned if you do and boring if you don't. The problem is very general. Science and chemistry in particular have been made to seem sterile - mostly because of health and safety considerations. In an effort to make it all seem sex we now have scientists dumbing things down with street science and TV shows creating the atmosphere of a "scienceathon". Science as entertainment might just manage to sell the subject enough so that when the victim discovers what it is really all about they aren't too unhappy - but computing?  Are we in danger of inventing a whole generation of hyperactive out of control programmers who can't sit still long enough to complete a procedure call?

I agree that we do need to make programming and computing in general seem exciting but sometimes we go too far and the hype obscures, not heightens, the excitement and pleasure. It might be time to start a new reaction to the hyperactive hype laden hackathon and promote zen in the art of programming.








Last Updated ( Wednesday, 22 December 2010 )

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