programming in the
twenty-first century

It's not about technology for its own sake. It's about being able to implement your ideas.

Advice to Aimless, Excited Programmers

I occasionally see messages like this from aimless, excited programmers:

Hey everyone! I just learned Erlang/Haskell/Python, and now I'm looking for a big project to write in it. If you've got ideas, let me know!


I love Linux and open source and want to contribute to the community by starting a project. What's an important program that only runs under Windows that you'd love to have a Linux version of?

The wrong-way-aroundness of these requests always puzzles me. The key criteria is a programing language or an operating system or a software license. There's nothing about solving a problem or overall usefulness or any relevant connection between the application and the interests of the original poster. Would you trust a music notation program developed by a non-musician? A Photoshop clone written by someone who has never used Photoshop professionally? But I don't want to dwell on the negative side of this.

Here's my advice to people who make these queries:

Stop and think about all of your personal interests and solve a simple problem related to one of them. For example, I practice guitar by playing along to a drum machine, but I wish I could have human elements added to drum loops, like auto-fills and occasional variations and so on. What would it take to do that? I could start by writing a simple drum sequencing program--one without a GUI--and see how it went. I also take a lot of photographs, and I could use a tagging scheme that isn't tied to a do-everything program like Adobe Lightroom. That's simple enough that I could create a minimal solution in an afternoon.

The two keys: (1) keep it simple, (2) make it something you'd actually use.

Once you've got something working, then build a series of improved versions. Don't create pressure by making a version suitable for public distribution, just take a long look at the existing application, and make it better. Can I build an HTML 5 front end to my photo tagger?

If you keep this up for a couple of iterations, then you'll wind up an expert. An expert in a small, tightly-defined, maybe only relevant to you problem domain, yes, but an expert nonetheless. There's a very interesting side effect to becoming an expert: you can start experimenting with improvements and features that would have previously looked daunting or impossible. And those are the kind of improvements and features that might all of a sudden make your program appealing to a larger audience.

permalink September 23, 2010



twitter / mail

I'm James Hague, a recovering programmer who has been designing video games since the 1980s. Programming Without Being Obsessed With Programming and Organizational Skills Beat Algorithmic Wizardry are good starting points. For the older stuff, try the 2012 Retrospective.

Where are the comments?