14Sep

Designing Algorithms On Paper, and Why Not Needing To Is a Warning Sign

Posted by Elf Sternberg as Design, programming

Brad Delong recently pointed me at Susan Dynarski’s article For Better Learning, Lay Down the Laptop and Pick up a Pen, in which she reviews the evidence that laptops, because of their speed and utility, actually inhibit learning by allowing students to take notes too quickly, and by giving students a universe of alternative distractions should the instruction get too boring. I’ve found Dynarski’s article to be absolutely true.

I recently finished a small homework assignment. After three days of working with it on the computer, I sat down with a sheet of paper and worked it out in an hour. I wrote it snowflake fashion: I described it, then iterated on the description until I had a complete description, with the public API underlined. It took another hour to implement it.

This is my lesson: if I can’t explain it to myself on paper, then I can’t explain or implement it on the computer. Ever. It just doesn’t work that way, at least not with software. The ideas don’t stick unless I’ve written them out. Every few years I have to re-learn this lesson, believing that I can short out the learning curve and get straight to the meat of the problem. But the meat of the problem isn’t in the computer, it’s math and common sense, and those take time, and paper, and a pencil.

One of the horrifying follow-on realizations this led me to was that, when I was at my last job, I was very rarely writing software. I wasn’t working out algorithms or implementing new and innovative processes. I was exploiting lenses.

In software development, a lens is an an algorithmic function that allows the user to focus in on a specific part of data without the user having access to, or having to know about, the rest of the data. (There’s much more to it than that, including a deep mathematical description, but that’s the basic idea.) And most of what I was doing was writing shims, to be part of a Kubernetes ecosystem, to help internal users monitor the health and well-being of the system.

Which is all well-and-good, but when you realize that you’ve married a massive protocol like HTTP to a very simple collection of filters, then come up with your own peculiar way of specifying to the filters who you are and what you want, over and over again… well, that can lead to a bit of burnout. Every job is easy, but every job whispers, "This is stupid and should have taken three days, not four weeks."

With very rare exception, this is what programming is these days. All software is little more than views into specific arrangements of data. This is one of the reasons functional programming is becoming so prevalent: that’s what functional programming believes in its heart. (There is a hard part, dealing with philosophical notions of time, but until other people can understand what the heck Conal Elliot is talking about, I’ll just leave that there.) Sometimes getting the data into that specific arrangement is a story about performance, timeliness, memory, and storage, but that’s pretty much all it is.

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