Software engineers are “sickeningly overprolific”

Sometimes people ask me how I can do so much. I have multiple websites, a full courseload, update my blog almost every day, and sleep 9 hours a night. I’ve built a solar car, interned at JPL, and am active with InterVarsity. And I try to do my best in all of it. How does it happen?

One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m never bored. I just don’t understand how people need more to do. There’s always a website, a book, the world, my mind– all fascinating stuff I can’t get enough of. I love life, even if I’m just resting.

But what actually brought up this idea tonight is an article on 37signals. It says:

Technology writer Danny O’Brien tried to figure out the secrets of 70 of the most “sickeningly overprolific” people he knew, most of whom were software engineers of one kind or another.

Software engineers? Is that just a coincidence? I think not. If you’re dealing with software, you want to know how it works. If you understand it, then you know what matters to you, and it’s not the tools you work with.

But their suggestions were surprisingly low-tech. None of them used complex technology to manage their to-do lists: no Palm Pilots, no day-planner software. Instead, they all preferred to find one extremely simple application and shove their entire lives into it. Some of O’Brien’s correspondents said they opened up a single document in a word-processing program and used it as an extra brain, dumping in everything they needed to remember – addresses, to-do lists, birthdays – and then just searched through that file when they needed a piece of information. Others used e-mail – mailing themselves a reminder of every task, reasoning that their in-boxes were the one thing they were certain to look at all day long.

That is surprising, but it’s what I would have expected. Complex technology isn’t how I get stuff done. It’s how other people waste time. Engineers can stay focused. They can invent, innovate, then carry out a plan. It’s all about doing things most effectively, and engineering has that worked down nearly to a science.

When it comes to technology, simplicity is the key factor for more and more people.

But for many users, simplicity now trumps power. Linda Stone, the software executive who has worked alongside the C.E.O.’s of both Microsoft and Apple, argues that we have shifted eras in computing. Now that multitasking is driving us crazy, we treasure technologies that protect us. We love Google not because it brings us the entire Web but because it filters it out, bringing us the one page we really need. In our new age of overload, the winner is the technology that can hold the world at bay.

Ah, Google. What made Google amazing is that it did something nobody thought was possible. We’ve got billions and billions of pages, terabytes and petabytes of data, and lots and lots of people with totally different queries. No computer is fast enough, right? No hard drive is big enough. No algorithm could possibly decipher so much.

Well, they succeeded. I’m still amazed. I can type in a couple of words I know appear on my website, and Google will serve up a link to my website in less than a second. It’s shocking. Not just the processing power and speed, but also the relevance. Google used links to determine relevance, which means we (webmasters and content creators) do all the work. But even if you had this idea, I doubt you could implement it. There are so many webpages and so many links, how could you possibly index it all?

Get together a few of the world’s best software engineers, and you can do it.

Leave a Reply