May 13, 2012

Stop Following The Rules

The fact that math, for most people, is about a set of rules, exemplifies how terrible our attempts at teaching it are. A disturbing amount of programming education is also spent hammering proper coding guidelines into students' heads. Describing someone as a cowboy programmer is often derisive, and wars between standards, rules and languages rage like everlasting fires. It is into these fires we throw the burnt-out husks that were once our imaginations. We have taken our holy texts and turned them into weapons to crush any remnants of creativity that might have survived our childhood's educational incarceration.

Math and programming are not sets of rules to be followed. Math is a language - an incredibly dense, powerful way of conveying ideas about abstraction and generalization taken to truly astonishing levels. Each theorem is another note added to a chord, and as the chords play one after another, they build on each other, across instruments, to form a grand symphony. Math, in the right hands, is the language of problem solving. Most people know enough math to get by. It's like knowing enough French to say hello, order food, and call a taxi. You don't really know the language, you're just repeating phrases to accomplish basic tasks. Only when you have mastered a certain amount of fluency can you construct your own epigraphs, and taste the feeling of putting thoughts into words.

With the proper background, Math becomes a box of legos. Sometimes you use the legos to solve problems. Other times you just start playing around and see what you can come up with. Like any language, Math can do simple things, like talk about the weather. Or, you can write a beautiful novel with words that soar through the reader's imagination. There are many ways to say things in Math. Perhaps you want to derive the formula for the volume of a sphere? You can use geometry, or perhaps calculus, or maybe it would be easier with spherical coordinates. Math even has dialects, there being many ways of writing a derivative, or even a partial derivative (one of my professors once managed to use three in a single lecture). As our mathematical vocabulary grows, we can construct more and more elegant sentences and paragraphs, refining the overall structure of our abstract essay.

Programming too, is just a language, one of concurrency, functions and flow-control. Programming could be considered a lingual descendant of Math. Just as English is Latin-based, so is programming a Math-based language. We can use it to express many arcane designs in an efficient manner. Each problem has many different solutions in many different dialects. There's functional programming and procedural programming and object-oriented programming. But the programming community is obsessed with solving boring problems and writing proper code. Too overly concerned about maintainability, naming conventions and source control. What constitutes "common sense" varies wildly depending on your chosen venue, and then everyone starts arguing about semicolons.

Creativity finds little support in modern programming. Anything not adhering to strict protocols is considered useless at best, and potentially damaging at worst. Programming education is infused with corporate policy, designed to teach students how to behave and not get into trouble. Even then, its terribly inconsistent, with multiple factions warring with each other over whose corporate policies are superior. Programming languages are treated more like religions than tools.

The issue is that solving new problems, by definition, requires creative thinking. Corporate policy designed to stamp out anything not adhering to "best practices" is shooting itself in the foot, because it is incapable of solving new classes of problems that didn't exist 5 years ago. Companies that finally succeed in beating the last drop of creativity out of their employees suddenly need to hire college graduates to solve new problems they don't know how to deal with, and the cycle starts again. We become so obsessed with enforcing proper code etiquette that we forget how to play with the language. We think we're doing ourselves a favor by ruthlessly enforcing strict coding guidelines, only to realize our code has already become irrelevant.

We need to separate our mathematical language from the proof. Just as there is more to English than writing technical specifications, there is more to Math than formal research papers, and more to programming than writing mission-critical production code. Rules and standards are part of a healthy programming diet, but we must remember to take everything in moderation. We can't be so obsessed with writing standardized code that we forget to teach students all the wonderful obscurities of the language. We can't be telling people to never use a feature of a programming language because they'll never use it properly. Of course they won't use it properly if they can't even try! We should not only be teaching programmers the importance of formality, but where it's important, and where it's not. We should encourage less stringent rules on non-critical code and small side projects.

In mathematics, one never writes a proof from beginning to finish. Often you will work backwards, or take shortcuts, until you finally refine it to a point where you can write out the formal specification. When messy code is put into production, it's not the programmer's fault for being creative, it's the idiot who didn't refactor it first. Solving this by removing all creativity from the entire pipeline is like banning cars to lower the accident rate.

Corporate policy is for corporate code, not experimental features. Don't let your creativity die. Stop following the rules.

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