The Programmers Paradox

Ryan Nehring by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

In every project a programmer takes on, a tiny war is waged between time and perfection. Coding is a complex task that offers multiple ways to achieve the same end and is counter-intuitively both rigid in its function but subjective in its appraisal.

What do I mean by that?

Well, in JavaScript, if you leave out a closing parenthesis you’ll likely break the code completely; it is rigid in that function. However, comparing how two different programmers choose to solve the problem of validating a form will result in a wildly subjective debate over approach, merits, efficiency, etc.

So, it’s important to recognize that each programmer has a distinct and personal definition of “perfect” when it comes to code.

The Programmer’s Paradox

The programmer’s paradox is a situation we all find ourselves in at one point or another. Every project has a moment where the coder has to decide if it’s more important to just finish a project or spend more time refining and perfecting it.

The paradoxical part is that, in our efforts to refine or add functionality, we inevitably cause new problems to arise. Too often programmers are trapped by the seductive illusion of “perfect code”, and the belief that a clearly defined finish line awaits us. That’s just not the nature of development.

For example, re-engineering a block of already functional code to execute faster often leads to the realization that other similar blocks of code could benefit from the same treatment.

This is a valuable and necessary part of development, however, the danger lies in not being able to differentiate between what is a practically useful enhancement and what is simply a marginal technical improvement.

What Truly Matters

As developers, it’s important to question what truly matters when it comes to the products we build. Marginal technical improvements may feel “more right” and even save a couple of clock cycles, but are they meaningful? Are they worth the time you might invest to achieve them?

The answer lies in a very simple question we forget to ask ourselves far too often: “Does this help the user?”

You’re not writing code to impress other programmers; you’re writing programs to give users the tools they need to do something.

Effective Application of Effort

It is amazingly easy to waste inordinate amounts of time and effort as a programmer for very little actual gain. Spending four hours refactoring your code to use a Quicksort algorithm instead of a Bubble sort may result in a slight speed improvement but will a user ever notice the .001 seconds you saved them?

Could that time have been better spent writing more effective error handling or addressing UI/UX?

Ultimately, the effective application of your effort has to be based on the principle of what will result in the most positive net effect for the user, not what makes you feel most accomplished.

An Exception for Every Rule

There are times where writing the absolute most clean, efficient code possible matters, despite the upfront time involved.

Are you building an application that needs to scale tremendously? Will it need to support an immense amount of concurrent users? Is it heavily reliant on API or database access for that heavy user load? In these cases, that .001 second time savings I mentioned above can begin to add up quickly.

But truthfully, despite what dev blogs might have you believe, these cases are remarkably rare. Far more often, the day-to-day developer finds themselves building tools for small teams, and those teams just need them to work the way they ask.

You’d be far better served to spend any extra development time you have building excellent documentation or error handling so that those users can get the most out of what you’ve built.

A Paradox Resolved

In the end, the programmer’s paradox isn’t actually much of a paradox at all. Resolving its challenge is as simple as asking yourself, what is best for my user?

Being honest with yourself about that question will rarely lead a developer astray. Building quality solutions with excellent user interfaces and documentation will nearly always pay more dividends than product delays and deep-dive code refactorings.

Make it work and then ship that thing out the door. You can always rewrite that sorting algorithm in the next release!

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