Programming's Impact on Personality

Mon, Aug 20, 2012 - 3:08pm -- Isaac Sukin

Tim from Crowdcademy recently wrote about the ugly side of programming:

I've also discovered that learning to code can have a big impact on your personality. Coding uses a lot of thinking patterns that I hadn't really used since my math and statistics classes in college, and even back then not in this intensity. As a result I've become more focused, more logical and smarter. But I've also become more detached from everyday life and less fun to hang out with.

It's hard to draw definitive conclusions about an observation like this, but there are a lot of interesting implications. I'll note simply that when I started programming seriously in 10th grade, I started trading time with friends for time with my computer on weekends. Did programming change my personality? Maybe. Would it have happened anyway if I had found a different interest that required a similar amount of time? Very likely. Ultimately I discovered the same lesson Tim did:

So the lesson I've learned is that - even though I like coding - I enjoy building products even more.

For me it was never about the code itself. What I like about programming is the same as Tim:

The ability to create something out of nothing. The intellectually challenging problems you face. The flexibility both in terms of time and place that the profession allows you. I've never experienced flow for such long periods of time with other tasks.

I love the constant challenges of building something bigger, better, more impactful; code is simply one choice of medium, not the end. And so I think that what Tim is experiencing is not that programming logic has made him think in a way that makes him less fun but rather that when you discover a new passion, there is always tension between working on something you really enjoy and being able to explain what you're obsessed with to people who aren't obsessed with it. In high school none of my friends wanted to hear about how I refactored my code into nicely layered abstractions, so if that was what I did that weekend I'd just redirect the conversation when asked. This discrepancy might change who you want to hang out with and who you can relate to, but not who you are. Sure enough I found that in college I had friends who like to code and being "less fun" was never a question.

(Fun fact: I dabbled in various flavors of BASIC for years before I started seriously programming. In 7th grade I wrote a program in Visual Basic for my first girlfriend that would show some random variation of "you are awesome!" when clicking a button. She was not nearly as excited as I was.)

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