From 10x programmer to 0.1x programmer: creating more with less

You've heard of the mythical 10x programmers, programmers who can produce ten times as much as us normal humans. If you want to become a better programmer this myth is demoralizing, but it's also not useful: how can you write ten times as much code? On the other hand, consider the 0.1x programmer, a much more useful concept: anyone can choose to write only 10% code as much code as a normal programmer would. As they say in the business world, becoming a 0.1x programmer is actionable.

Of course writing less code might seem problematic, so let's refine our goal a little. Can you write 10% as much code as you do now and still do just as well at your job, still fixing the same amount of bugs, still implementing the same amount of features? The answer may still be "no", but at least this is a goal you can more easily work towards incrementally.

Doing more with less code

How do you do achieve just as much while writing less code?

1. Use a higher level programming language

As it turns out many of us are 0.1x programmers without even trying, compared to previous generations of programmers that were stuck with lower-level programming languages. If you don't have to worry about manual memory management or creating a data structure from scratch you can write much less code to achieve the same goal.

2. Use existing code

Instead of coding from scratch, use an existing library that achieves the same thing. For example, earlier this week I was looking at the problem of incrementing version numbers in source code and documentation as part of a release. A little searching and I found an open source tool that did exactly what I needed. Because it's been used by many people and improved over time chances are it's better designed, better tested, and less buggy than my first attempt would have been.

3. Spend some time thinking

Surprisingly spending more time planning up front can save you time in the long run. If you have 2 days to fix a bug it's worth spending 10% of that time, an hour and half, to think about how to solve it. Chances are the first solution you come up with in the first 5 minutes won't be the best solution, especially if it's a hard problem. Spend an hour more thinking and you might come up with a solution that takes two hours instead of two days.

4. Good enough features

Most feature requests have three parts:

  1. The stuff the customer must have.
  2. The stuff that is nice to have but not strictly necessary.
  3. The stuff the customer is willing to admit is not necessary.

The last category is usually dropped in advance, but you're usually still asked to implement the middle category of things that the customer and product manager really really want but aren't actually strictly necessary. So figure out the real minimum path to implement a feature, deliver it, and much of the time it'll turn out that no one will miss those nice-to-have additions.

5. Drop the feature altogether

Some features don't need to be done at all. Some features are better done a completely different way than requested.

Instead of saying "yes, I'll do that" to every feature request, make sure you understand why someone needs the feature, and always consider alternatives. If you come up with a faster, superior idea the customer or product manager will usually be happy to go along with your suggestion.

6. Drop the product altogether

Sometimes your whole product is not worth doing: it will have no customers, will garner no interest. Spending months and months on a product no one will ever use is a waste of time, not to mention depressing.

Lean Startup is one methodology for dealing with this: before you spend any time developing the product you do the minimal work possible to figure out if it's worth doing in the first place.

Conclusion

Your goal as programmer is not to write code, your goal is to solve problems. From low-level programming decisions to high-level business decisions there are many ways you can solve problems with less code. So don't start with "how do I write this code?", start with "how do I solve this problem?" Sometimes you'll do better not solving the problem at all, or redefining it. As you get better at solving problems with less code you will find yourself becoming more productive, especially if you start looking at the big picture.


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