Coding Under Par

Brent Simmons reflects on his ambition to stop coding “late at night”:

I may think I’m adding productive hours to my day — but I’m not. I’m writing bugs, or, at best, not the best code I could be writing. And I pay for it later.

I read Brent’s piece with a lot of nodding my own head. I find late night coding perhaps more alluring than ever because as a husband and father of two, who happens to work from home, much of my daytime development time is compromised by commitments to family, distractions, or even just the knowledge that whatever I’m working on now has a firm and fixed stopping time.

I suppose the same is true late at night, but when it’s midnight and I’m on a perceived roll with some coding challenge, there doesn’t appear to be any stopping me. I “have all night,” or at least that’s what my monkey brain says. Of course, the smarter half of me knows I should be getting calling it a day and getting some much-needed rest.

The next morning, I usually realize that whatever challenge was tantalizing me into the wee hours was in fact a 15 minute problem that I could have, should have, put off until I was more capable.

I think Brent’s observation about the perils of late-night coding are a special case of a larger problem: your best work will come at unpredictable times. As a rule, we probably won’t do our best work at midnight, but there will be mornings when 9AM is not the best time for cranking out code, either. I have often made, and continue making the mistake of assuming that productivity in software development is directly related to time. It’s not. Any of us with a history of working in code has memories of those “weird days” where weeks of work seemed to vanish under the inspired direction of 4 hours “working in the zone.”

I don’t know how to get in the zone reliably, but I am learning to recognize that when I’m not there, it’s not worth pushing it. If you’re banging away at the keyboard and nothing seems to be working as well as it should, maybe it’s time to go to sleep, go for a run, go to a museum, get lunch with a friend, you get the idea. Maybe it’s time to do anything but endeavor to write code as well as you do when you’re at your best.