Burn It Down

While at dinner with a friend of mine a couple of weekends ago, we got to talking about how certain programming problems, usually the hardest ones we’ve faced, are ones where we ended up having to simply workthe problem: stare at the code, stare at the reference / specification / dataset, hunker down, and plow through the tough stuff with more determination and tenacity than engineering or design rigor. While we were talking about this dynamic, I inadvertently summed up that kind of experience and approach with what I think is a pretty apt phrase: sometimes, you just need to “burn it down” (’it’ being the problem at hand).

The phrase “burn it down” has been rattling around in my head incessantly since then, so I’m hoping to exorcise it here. Perhaps the reason why it’s stayed with me so long is that there’s a pretty good chance that that phrase has a lot of applicability to life in general. Looking back over the years, I’ve often found myself in situations where the key to survival and (ostensibly) success has been my ability (tendency?) to wage a war of attrition against that which stands in my way.

The most immediate case is a programming challenge: you’re sitting there trying to solve a problem for the umpteenth time, and the algorithm in your head or on the page in front of you is laughing at your inadequacies. Ideally, you’d like to step up to the whiteboard, and bang out a description of how this data structure should look, a proof for how that graph-walking algorithm can be sped up by an order of magnitude, whatever. I’ve seen programmers do this – they’ll pull out a small pad, and in about 8 minutes, they’ll knock out some pseudocode for an implementation of some algorithm that might take you an hour to comprehend, never mind implement.

Unfortunately, only a vanishing minority can seize hard problems like that on a regular basis; the rest of us are left wanting to be smarter than we clearly are. So, despite all of your hopes, your text editor simply stares blankly at you, the whiteboard is inert, and you’re left with two options: failure, or the last resort of the almost-overwhelmed, unyielding determination.

(This is very simply the same thing that Edison talking about: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Of course, I don’t think we’re in genius territory here…competency, perhaps?)

I’ve experienced that exasperation so many times while working on PDFTextStream and other Snowtide products. I’m fond of saying that I’m a math idiot, and while few people believe me, it’s entirely true. There are things in PDFTextStream that required me to slowly, painfully learn more about esoteric corners of computational geometry than I would ever care to know otherwise, and the same goes for various other specialties in mathematics and computer science. For me, understanding formalisms in those fields is like feathering a chicken by running it through a keyhole. The only way I’ve been able to ship a single bloody line of code has been to Burn It Down.

Of course, programming is a very narrow domain, but I think the same strategy is the only tool that us humans have to use in coping with the crush of life and disorder that surrounds us. Through growing up, getting an education, finding a job, starting a business, sustaining a life partnership, raising children, and coping with the march of time, the only common thread of human endeavor is rage. Even that majickal 1% of prodigies and bona fide geniuses have areas of their lives where their only hope of enduring is to simply endure. In a way, it’s comforting to know that despite the pretensions of some, the only sure way to succeed in programming (and likely even loftier domains) is to lay siege to (or perhaps, depending upon your mindset, to practice judo with) whatever challenge is ahead.

The day is young. Burn, baby, burn.

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