Programming is hard

Posted on 2023-09-19

Software is weird. In its basic form, software is this very abstract thing with seemingly little connection to the real world. Yet graphical applications running on a hardware device like a modern phone feel very real, even to people who have no appreciation of what happens within this “black box”. Some pieces of software is even able to control hardware to perform real actions in the physical world.

As programmers, some of the code that we write is supposed to model real world concepts, and as a result the code often reflects this in its structure and form. Other pieces of code are purely abstract and solve “metaphysical” problems that only exist within the realm of computers. Code solving abstract problems might also serve as necessary foundations to build more tangible “real world modelling” on top of.

At the end of the day code has no obligation or enforced requirement to resemble the problem it’s supposed to solve – and sometimes there isn’t even a “real” problem to compare it to in the first place. Of course, code which is able to somehow communicate this correlation tends to be considered more “readable” and “maintainable” simply due to familiarity. But the purpose of the systems we build is first and foremost “to model”, not simply “to be”1.

Software is a means to an end and as long as the behavior of our model solves our problem well enough users tend to be satisfied.

  • Me @RightNow

Performance considerations aside, computers do not care at all about the structure of the programs they’re evaluating. A legacy spaghetti mess of a codebase might solve a problem just as well as any well-crafted system. The cost of poorly constructed solutions only becomes relevant when we factor in the fact that humans tend to have to come back and make changes to them.

This highlights one of the more hidden, but considerable challenges of being a programmer: Having to translate real world requirements into abstract constructs that – when evaluated by a computer – model our problem domain to a satisfactory degree. And we have to do this while also considering how we best can model our abstractions so both our future selves and our peers are able to make sense of them.

Much of the online discourse about the complexity of programming tend to focus on complexity associated with programming languages, tools and technology stacks that we use. Not so much on how we can more effectively understand requirements and translate these into code. Neither how we can ensure that these requirements can be communicated and maintained over time as our system evolves. This is not to say there are no such efforts. I myself very much enjoyed attending the 2023 edition of DDD Europe where this exact problem is front-and-center.

Learning a programming language syntax and semantics can be both time-consuming and mind-bending2. The same goes for tools, services and infrastructure that’s central to building modern applications and services. And not only that! Many of these technologies change at a rapid pace, so even keeping up with updates to things we already though we knew can feel overwhelming. But let’s not also forget or neglect our responsibility to understand the people and the world around us – and how crucial this understanding is to ensure quality and purpose in the majority of the code that we write.

Yeah, programming is hard! I mean, like, really hard!

  1. This does not mean that there can’t be code for the sake of code – be that recreation, art or other purposes. But the code that most of us are paid to write quickly falls into this category.↩︎

  2. This doesn’t just hold true when learning your first programming language. Crossing programming language paradigms can also be quite a big challenge. Attempting to learn Haskell after many years of using more conventional languages was not just mind-opening to me, it was also bloody difficult to unlearn some of the things I already knew.↩︎