Elegant code makes me happy

The happy engineers couldn’t make me happy. I know they tried and so did I, but communicating through on line forums and chats sometimes just doesn’t cut it when you have a problem with a website or application. I had to seek out my very own WordPress therapist to talk it through and fix my widgets problem. I needed the face to face personal touch. “Happy engineers” is how the WordPress technical support community is known. They’re undoubtably ex-programmers who migrated to desktop support and a marketing guy must have dreamed up the name in order to communicate to the bloggers like me that “happy engineers” love helping people and making them happy.

The woman I call my “Wordpress therapist” was someone in one of my other networks who essentially recognized my pain and was willing to meet with me through zoom (essentially face to face) though most of the time we mostly looked at “drop downs” about widgets. (Widgets are blocks of content you can add to a site, sidebar, or footers, to add feature/functionality to the site without writing code.) I had struggled with how to remove a “featured post” widget on my site, and tried and tried to do it myself on my own and couldn’t do so. With her visible we were able to resolve the problem in less than twenty minutes, and I was able to ask her some unrelated general WordPress issues. I wouldn’t have been able to do that through the online forum. I think she enjoyed the episode as well; she offered her assistance if anything else cropped up. Now that made me happy.

I am of the age where face to face or personal interaction through zoom is so much more palatable than an online chat or forum or an automated voice router. I also much prefer email to anything else, having used it for some forty years. When I was at Data General starting in the late 1970s, programmers there pioneered Comprehensive Electronic Office (CEO), a real game changer in 1981. It was an office automation package that included email communications, word processing, spreadsheet, business graphics, and desktop applications. The year 1981 was pivotal for other milestones; IBM’s PC debuted that year. And DG developed its new minicomputer technology MV/8000. The Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction book “Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder was also published in 1981. For anyone who thinks writing code and programmers are heartless and cold human beings, I suggest you read this https://wired.com/2000/12/soul/book.

I worked in a number of high tech firms started by programmers (or developers) and firms that were populated with more programmers than any other function in the company. Programmers were everywhere …. even when they did not appear to be. In my experience many if not most of the product marketing people were formerly programmers, all of the pre-sales engineers were programmers, sustaining engineers were programmers, network administrators were programmers and occasionally an inside sales person might even be an ex-programmer. We in marketing communications, the creative people, the copywriters were not programmers, and would never be; we were strangers in a strange land. We provided an essential service but most programmers and marketing people didn’t really understand each other all that well or mix much, though they should have because there are more similarities between them than meets the eye. Slinging code and writing copy are similar pursuits conducted by people who have other common traits.

Reminiscing about those days reminds me of a joke that circulated at one of the software firms:

Q: How can you tell the difference between a friendly programmer as opposed to an unfriendly programmer when you pass them walking down the hall?

A: The friendly programmer looks at your shoes instead of his own.

Well, I thought it was funny. Speaking of tech-y humor, equally funny is the search engine results response I received last week on a private search engine (that must have been conceived by another marketing guy):

“Now that’s some strange shit. We got nothin’. Maybe try something a bit less esoteric”.

I took a double take when I read that line. Since then I’ve tried some other “esoteric searches” at the same search engine trying to generate other comic replies, but apparently that’s the only response it has to offer.

Programmers can’t be faulted for not communicating like marketers. I worked around programmers, engineers, chemists and other analytical types for most of my career, but I never hit it off much with them. We got along fine to do our jobs but there wasn’t much interaction beyond that. The truth is most programmers thought our work was unnecessary, simple-minded and a waste of money. Money that could be put it into hiring more programmers! Some programmers thought “if you build it, they will come”. They typically wanted to add features that were their whims rather than learning what the real customers wanted. They didn’t understand the evaluation and buying cycle and how to market, how to sell, nor did they really know the strategic vision for the company. But the fact is the mindset, the ethic, the processes and the end result of our respective work are similar. A little education was in order.

Code does a great job at finding the natural stress lines in a problem, and breaking it into multiple pieces. Elegant code gets at the structure of what it’s doing. Good copywriting (reinforced with visuals, charts, tabular data) also looks at “stress points”. These are the obstacles or resistance that need to be addressed in order to first make a reader identify with the problem and then overcome them. Copywriters seek to move the reader from one position to another. Good copywriting sells but it does it in a way that is palatable to the reader. It’s not like the sales in the movie GlenGarry Glen Rosshttps://m.imdb.com/title/tt0104348/.

The end result for code and copy is similar. They’re both creative and analytical enterprises. The programmer and the copywriter face a blank piece of paper (or screen) and face feelings of self-doubt while in the throes of coding and production. They sweat the details. They both know the more they do, the better they will get st it. They both put blood, sweat and tears, some might call it “soul” into their creative act. Even the proofing and review cycle are similar. Their output needs to be approved by “the committee”. In a start-up, the committee may only be one or two people, but in an enterprise it might literally be a committee of numerous people, some who have not even part of the project for the onset, or seen the strategy document, but have the title and must approve it

At one software firm we marketed to programmers so I got to know the mindset of programmers pretty well even if I didn’t hang out with them. Many are skeptics (especially about marketing). They love solving puzzles and problems. That’s the attraction of algorithms. They’re particular or call it perfectionistic and take great pains to make sure the code ends up being simple, clear, crisp, thoughtful and straightforward. If the code meets these attributes it may be “elegant”. It had to be to really work well. Writing code is a discipline of writing instructions using a language for each instruction.

Knowing the programmer’s mindset, we in direct marketing produced letter packages, collateral and inserts that worked on several levels while being tied together with a common concept. Most of the letter packages were psychological and played off the theme of puzzles and gamesmanship in sync with the feature/functionality and benefits of the product and offer. If the mailing moved the programmer to take action, then it too could be consider “elegant”. It had measurable results

My guess is that programmers and marketers are less at odds today than ever before. Computer and Internet use is mainstream. Society is more digital, more wired than in the past. While I couldn’t tell you the differences between C++, FORTRAN, a 4GL or Python, I truly appreciate the elegant code that drives the production of computer programs, websites, apps and widgets that I enjoy today. That’s something else I’m grateful for when programmer’s skills and passion are used for good purposes.

Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

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