Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Rufus, my cockatiel, is sitting quietly on top of his cage, preening. Suddenly he lets out three short screeches and bolts down the hallway, flying low and fast. I look out the window and see a hawk circling. I find him in the bathroom, in full alert: feathers slicked down, neck fully extended, head turning quickly, looking for danger. I take him on my hand and quietly say “it's OK, it's a red-tail, they don't eat birds.” He doesn't understand my words, of course, but the tone calms him, and he returns to his cage. Hawks will continue to frighten him, and with good reason: there's also a family of sharpshins in the neighborhood, and they do eat birds.

This is the ur-fear: being torn apart and eaten by another creature. Humans, residing at the top of the food chain, usually only feel this fear after seeing a horror movie. But we still have an amygdala, which looks for reasons to initiate a fear response. So we react to a whole range of stimuli: violent death, injury, losing our job, or just the possibility that our manager and coworkers will be upset at us.

A little fear is perhaps healthy; it's what keeps us from doing stupid things. But there's a darker side to fear: it's focused on the self. All considerations of other people or long-term viability are ignored in the immediate pursuit whatever it takes to resolve the fear. Or, in the words of the late Warren Zevon:

You're a whole different person when you're scared

Programmers don't often face choices of self-preservation. But every day, on all types of projects, they make fear responses: working extraordinaty hours, sacrificing maintainability, adding more people to a late project. In this light, I'm not sure that the “software craftsmanship” movement can be successful. It depends on programmers aspiring to a higher ideal, but it has to contend with a visceral reaction.

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