The lone and level sands of software

There’s that moment late at night when you can’t sleep, and you’re so tired you can’t even muster the energy to check the time. So you stare blindly at the ceiling and look back over your life, and you think: “Did I really accomplish anything? Was my work worth anything at all?”

I live in a 140-year-old house, a house which has outlasted its architect and builders, and quite possibly will outlast me. But having spent the last twenty years of my life building software, I can’t really hope to have my own work live on. In those late night moments I sometimes believe that my resume, like that of most programmers, should open with a quote from Shelley’s mocking poem:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Who among us has not had projects canceled, rewritten from scratch, obsoleted, abandoned or discarded? Was that code worth writing, or was all that effort just a futile waste?

Decay, boundless and bare

Consider some of the projects I’ve worked on. I’ve been writing software for 20+ years at this point, which means I’ve accumulated many decayed wrecks:

  • The multimedia CD-ROMs I created long ago no longer run on modern operating systems, not so much because of Microsoft but because of my own design mistake.
  • The dot-com I worked for turned out to be a dot-bomb.
  • An offline educational platform turned out, on reflection by the customer, not to require offline capabilities. It was rewritten (by someone else) as a simpler web app.
  • The airline reservation project I was small part of, a massive and rarely undertaken project, finally went live on a small airline. Google, which had acquired the company that built it, shut the project down a couple of years later. Some parts were used elsewhere and lived on, but I’m told that they have since been rewritten; by now the legacy software has probably been decommissioned.
  • Projects done for startups… gone down with the company, or abandoned by a pivot, or surviving in zombie form as unmaintained open source.

I could go on, but that would just make me sadder. This is not to say none of my software lives on: there are open source projects, mostly, that have survived quite a whole, and will hopefully continue for many more. But I’ve spent years of my life working on software that is dead and gone.

How about you? How much of your work has survived?

Which yet survive

So what do you have left, after all these years of effort? You get paid for your work, of course, and getting paid has its benefits. And if you’re lucky your software proved valuable to someone, for a while at least, before it was replaced or shut down. For me at least that’s worth even more than the money.

But there’s something else you gain, something you get to take with you when the money is spent and your users have moved on: knowledge, skills, and mistakes you’ll know how to avoid next time. Every failure I’ve listed above, every mistake I’ve made, every preventable rewrite, is something I hope to avoid the next time around.

And while software mostly dies quickly, the ideas live on, and if we pay attention it’ll be the good ideas that survive. I’ve borrowed ideas for my own logging library from software that is now dead. If my library dies one day, and no doubt it will, I can only hope its own contributions will be revived by one of my users, or even someone who just half-remembers a better way of doing things.

Dead but not forgotten

Since the ultimate benefit of most software projects is what you learned from them, it’s important to make sure you’re actually learning. It’s easy to just do your work and move on. If you’re not careful you’ll forget to look for the mistakes to avoid next time, and you won’t notice the ideas that are the only thing that can truly survive in the long run.

  • Every month or two, take a look at what you’ve been working on, and ask yourself: “Am I learning something new?” If you aren’t, it’s time for a change: perhaps just a bit of introspection to see what there is to be learned, perhaps a new project, maybe even a new job.
  • If you have learned something, ask yourself if you’ve ensured that this knowledge is passed on to others, so they can gain something from it.

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