web programmer theory and designProgrammers in general are, and have always been a strange breed. I’m certainly not alone in thinking this, but more and more of late I’ve been asking myself whether or not society’s perception of a programmer is actually correct. After all I’m normal, right? Right?

A programmer’s cognitions seem to be constructed quite differently to those of you who would consider yourself “normal”. Programmers quite often don’t see things the same way as others, and their perception of the world and its occupants in general seems to be a little askew.

So why is this? And could it be possible that all programmers have an identical mindset or commonalities in their thought processes? To understand this more, I’ve taken a brief look into the psychology of the programming mind – from what might appear a somewhat solemn viewpoint.

Programmers in general seem to be very driven in looking for, or producing order where chaos is present. They question. They answer. They simplify. It’s in their make up. But why? Where does this drive and quest for answers come from?

Why did I even choose programming as a career?

Note: Before we go any further it should be said that while I’m not a qualified authority on such psychological matters, the findings below are my own, but they were validated via a well respected psychologist who kindly spent quite a deal of time speaking with me about the subject.

Looking back on my career as a programmer to get some insight, the first point of call for me was to question why I actually became a programmer. In fact why did I feel the need or drive to even go to college to study it in the first place? When I think back to that point in my life I can’t say it was something I really enjoyed at all, but I ended up doing it nonetheless.

I thought over this question for a while and came up empty, so I started speaking with a few of the people I was at college with to get some further insight. Was I the anomaly in my group in that I didn’t particularly want to be there, or did any of the others have similar feelings?

Surprisingly, almost each and every one of them had a similar response. Not one of them gave a substantial response as to why they chose that particular subject, and very few of them really enjoyed what they were learning. Certainly not the results I was expecting.

Somewhat confounded I looked a little deeper, seeking insight from some of the individual characters I was studying with, again hoping to find some common ground and finally I found something. Big or small, I wasn’t sure at this point, but it was certainly something tangible and it was certainly something I had never considered in my life up until this point.

Here’s a few examples of students from the programming group I was a part of, complete with abbreviated back stories and where they are now. There’s a rather perturbing theme present here.

Subject A

Subject A came from a very strict background. He was forced to play the piano for hours each day at a very early age and even at the age of 19 he had to come straight home from college to practice. The stress he was under to get maximum grades was enormous. He still works as a programmer.

Subject B

Subject B it turned out was abused as a child. At college she was very withdrawn and didn’t interact socially with others in the social groups. She had one friend and one friend only through her time. She only recently brought her abuse to light and underwent therapy to get over this trauma. She is now training to be a therapist.

Subject C

Subject C was obsessed with her pets. This was all she ever talked about at college and she would not discuss her home life at all. She works as a dog trainer.

Subject D

Subject D came from a strict Indian family and attempted to rebel from their authority with the freedom college allowed. Even so, when he was aware he would disappoint his family, the pressure he applied to himself was harmful. He is now back in India looking after his extended family. He still works as a freelance programmer.

Subject E

Subject E was someone that was very quiet and personal in college. Only after 18 months of day to day activity with the same groups of people did Subject E start to blossom. This coincided with the revelation that Subject E was only interested in the same sex. Up until this point Subject E’s grades were exemplary. They dropped significantly after. Subject E now splits time between working as a programmer and a DJ.

Subject F

Subject F lived at home with his disabled mother. His father and mother had an abusive relationship that caused him so much distress we were forewarned by college tutors about it. He is now a child psychologist.

Making Sense Of It

The initial commonality identified in of the examples above was of course that they were party to some quite unexplainable, and in some cases horrific experiences during their formative years. Researching further I found that this was in fact a common characteristic in approximately 80% of our small community.

Even so, every child growing up has things to overcome that are difficult for one so young to comprehend, so more excavation needed to be done to get some additional answers. It wasn’t long before I arrived at my next finding and there was another similarity present in all of them.

Another factor present in each of the subjects was that none of them appeared to have the necessary support present that allowed them to put these incomprehensible events into their proper perspective. Each of them lacked the necessary nurturing and guidance from their parent figures or early peers.

Each and every one of them was effectively “lost at sea” at some point in their life, and none of these individuals were provided with the definitive answers their minds needed to put these events to rest. As my psychologist colleague puts it, “they were carrying around a series of unsolved puzzles with them and were never given all of the pieces to complete it”.

As a result of the prior confusing or painful events combined with the unresolved nature of them, their brains effectively began to rewire normal thinking patterns, and an intrinsic necessity to gain answers became the norm. A scenario where they didn’t have all the answers had formed an unnatural psychological association with anguish or pain.

To simplify: by having all of the answers you aren’t subjected to the anchored pain or confusion of past memories that made no sense to you at all. Having the answers, and even searching for them to some extent becomes your safe place and this only ceases to be true if the subject has dealt with all of the issues that accompany their past experiences and they can somehow be thoroughly explained.

But none of this happened to me!

Perhaps this seems an overly extravagant theory, but coming to these conclusions made me take a look back at my own life growing up. I certainly don’t look back with any pain or confusion as the subjects listed earlier would have, but the more I looked the more I found things that a child wouldn’t necessarily have the know-how to deal with. And stranger still, while I’d consider myself a balanced person, these unanswered questions are still present to this very day.

There are obviously varying degrees of seriousness at hand here. Not everyone had such extreme disturbances in their formative years, but the more serious the events that led up to this point appeared, the more my test subjects had a desire to understand things to an almost compulsive degree. It’s also true of most programmers that they gain an abnormal amount of satisfaction from being able to fix things. Anything and everything.

Of course, there’s more to it and I’ve purposely left out other commonly identifiable programmer traits – for example, the need to achieve perfection or greatness, the need to be always correct, the preference to work as an individual rather than a team.   They’re all often cited as characteristics of a programmer, but they are also very unique and complex topics and best left for another day – even if they do relate to this article in a number of ways.

So what’s my ‘take home’ from this article?

If you’re a programmer, I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the topic at hand. I’d also appreciate you taking the time to look back over your life or career path and question what was going on around you at the time.

Of the programming communities I have questioned thus far, the results are showing that out of 22 people interviewed, an incredible 21 of those could identify things that simply didn’t make sense in their lives. Furthermore, I’ve only asked 24 people thus far in my study and only two have refused. That’s a pretty high acceptance rate – perhaps additional proof that programmers have an in built need for answers? Who knows?

Look closely. Bereavements, disabilities, family break ups – anything that doesn’t make sense. And once you find these circumstances, ask yourself if you have a complete understanding of what was going on at the time.

Like me, what you may find is that you didn’t choose programming as a career after all. Perhaps programming chose you.