Understanding the effects of pressure
Jul 25, 2011
6 minute read

Often family and friends don’t understand this apparent paradox: how can I tell them that I have no free time this week, and still spend hours playing video games? At first sight, this makes me a lazy slob with poor excuses for avoiding his loved ones. However, it is one of the numerous phenomenons that have well-defined causes and that you just have to accept.

How the internet ruined everything

The internet age has changed everything about the way we work. Old people like to blather snarky remarks like: “Back in the days, you could wait a whole week for mail to arrive”. Nowadays, you can ping someone on Twitter and get a meaningful answer in a few seconds.

Back in the days, people had to allocate timeslices on huge, costly workstations ten times the size of your bedroom just to have computations done. Now almost all home computers stay idle, waiting for user input. Idling, sleeping and various standby modes have become so important that it’s one of the main reason the Android developers added custom interfaces to the Linux kernel!

Back in the days, you could wait twenty hours for a compile to finish: and in some areas, this is still true (console game development, for example). However, in web development, often the moment between saving a file and seeing the results is less than a second. How does that impact us developers?

Having near-instantaneous feedback on what we build radically changes the way it is conceived. When you’re building a 100-feet tower out of wood sticks, you cannot just “throw it together quickly and see if it holds”. However, in web, this is what we do everyday, because it’s much cheaper than working months in the wrong direction.

As a result, young programmers that were bathed in that web culture have a general tendency (which thankfully doesn’t apply to everyone - as does every generalization) to lack planning abilities, in exchange for a stunning propension to adapt quickly to any adversity the real world might throw at them.

An older friend of mine is still in that old mindset of laying everything down first. When tackling a problem, he thinks like he is building a 100-feet tower. He considers every possible angle, draws figures, has a good long think. And finally when he decides to start coding, he’s done in a few hours and often it works the first time!

An extreme lifestyle

That said, would I want to employ this old friend to work on web projects? No. Because the way business works on the internet, you don’t have the time to plan everything in advance. And the real world throws a lot of shit at you, and you better react fast.

For example, you might discover that people can randomly delete links from your search engine, or that your social network is randomly banning people from itself. Victim of success, you might need to address a tenfold increase in traffic, or suddenly face a lawsuit claiming half of your possessions.

Dijkstra (reference needed) has said that computer science is the most fascinating field of study, because you get to deal with the most extreme powers of ten. Often programmers have to care about bits (UTF-8, endianness, binary file formats), and it’s not uncommon for websites to deal with hundreds of thousands of visitors a day!

Because we are faced with such extreme challenges, pressure is a daily part of our jobs as developers, designers, administrators, product managers. In fact, it’s not even seen as a problem: we’ve gotten used to it. I’ve often heard the sentence: “I do my best work under pressure”. It’s become so familiar that somehow we cannot get anything done if there is no pressure.

Through the looking glass

Not everyone can deal with pressure. As every challenge in life, it should not be fought but rather embraced and welcomed as a new part of ourselves. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to understand that pressure is an entirely different dimension.

Ever had the impression you were talking to a wall? That’s when you’re attempting to reach someone in a different dimension. Functioning in that extreme part of our job is so intense, so different from mundane life that it becomes simply impossible to communicate with the people we left behind.

Because those dimensions are so far away from each other, it takes time to travel from one to the other. This is why being interrupted every ten minutes is beyond irritating and a real productivity killer. The cost of mental state switching has been discussed in great lengths by every proponent of miraculous methods to get things done.

Travelling to the pressure dimension is perhaps the easiest direction. Crisis are the most efficient gateways to pressure: when something goes horribly wrong, I can be operational in ten seconds if I have my laptop handy. Running to the nearest Starbucks to get SSH access to a server failing under load is not unheard of.

It’s hard for outsiders to understand the importance of this, and why they suddenly cease to exist. Anyone can get why a fireman needs to leave his wife and kids to go put out a fire with his casked friends. However, on the web, the fire is not material. It’s really hard to impress your family with a curve and say: “see that gigantic peak over there? it means I’m fired if I don’t fix it by the hour”.

Getting back to normal life

Travelling from the pressure dimension back to the world most humans live in is the hardest. Some colleagues are damaged beyond repair: they’ve lived in the pressure dimension so long, they’ve accomodated. It would require a re-adaptation course to get them back from where they are.

That’s the reason a few very prolific programmers are so impossible to manage! Stuck in the pressure dimension, where they need a giant ego and constant overstatements to survive, their superiors need to invent ingenuous ways to communicate with them. However messed up, they stay, in my opinion, very valuable assets to the company that knows how to deal with them.

For those of us who can still go back and forth, we all have different ways of travelling back to normal life. Sometimes we use violent video games, because it allows us to expulse all that pressure on virtual characters and challenges without hurting anyone, with added fun.

It is a terrible, terrible mistake to cut short the travel of someone coming back from the pressure dimension. While not as lethal as dragging up someone from the ocean’s abyss too fast, you take the risk of getting burned heavily because you now have to face a person in-between two dimensions.

So, dear friends, dear family, when I paint the walls red with tiny fractions of zombie brains, it does not mean that I am a violent freak. It is a necessary journey to travel back from my universe and be able to enjoy a bite of life as a normal person, with you.