Critical thinking

Op-ed: Have you seen my monkey?


Originally appearing in October’s JAX Magazine, Jessica Kerr thinks you’re smarter than a regular code monkey

Originally appearing in October’s JAX Magazine, Jessica Kerr
believes you can become more than just a programming primate
through abstraction.

Are you a code monkey? Of course not! You’re

How are you smarter? Working memory capacity makes one human
smarter than another. The more you can hold in your head at once,
the smarter you are. And the better programmer: the more pieces of
the system you hold in your head, the more problems you solve

Except, humans have no more working memory than monkeys. We can
hold three to four things in our brains, and they can hold three to
four things in their brains. What makes us smarter? Hint: it’s the
same thing that makes a good programmer smarter than a code

As a human, I start out holding three to four things in my
brain. Then I find some pattern among these things, and group them,
and they become one thing. They fit together in one working memory

Take a phone number: “314 714 5555.” Ten digits is a lot to hold
in my head. When I look at this number, I don’t see ten digits. I
see my area code, my area code again except starting with 7, and
all fives. The digits 3, 1, and 4 are three things, but “my area
code” is one thing. Ten digits now take up about three spots in my

Humans do this. We create categories, find patterns, then larger
patterns, and then patterns within the patterns. We think about
rotors, then engines, and then airplanes. That monkey is still
thinking about the rock right in front of him.

Neuroscientist Daniel Bor calls this “chunking.”
It gives humans our intellectual capacity. I call it “abstraction.”
It makes coders into great developers.

Abstraction is seeing complicated parts as a coherent whole. It
is conceiving a module as its interface. Abstraction is spotting
patterns among chunks of code, making them one item in our head. It
is zooming out from the irrelevant details in other parts of the
system and zeroing in on the problem in front of us.

Abstraction is the key tool of our profession. The human
programmer takes a nasty UML diagram, puts most of it out of their
head, and closes in on the relevant piece for the current problem.
Then they zoom back out and look at the system as a whole,
disregarding the details of what they just finished. Great
programmers go back and forth between syntax and the big

Great programmers keep in mind the purpose of other parts of the
system, but not internal details. If internal details aren’t in
your head, your code won’t depend on them. Your system stays
modular and clean.

Code monkeys don’t take the wider view. They don’t see the
patterns. They don’t look at the big picture and ask “why are we
doing it this way?“ They’re stuck in a jungle of local variables
and for-loops.

Come down from the trees. Rise up the ladder of abstraction. Be

Author Bio: Jessica
Kerr writes Scala code for Monsanto, technical presentations for
conferences like CodeMash and DevTeach, articles for magazines like
this one, and blog posts for her own pleasure. Find her work

This article appeared in JAX Magazine
Atmopshere. Download that and others here.

Image courtesy of frankh

Jessica Kerr is a Java-turned-Scala developer in St. Louis, MO. Her passion for learning is countered only by her taste for whisky. She participates in the JetBrains Academy, helps organize the local Java User Group, entertains her two daughters, and tweets as @jessitron.
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