I got to thinking recently about the relationship between a developer and his / her code.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this relationship is parental:
Your code is, figuratively, your ‘baby’.

It’s something that you’ve created, and that you’re proud of. You’d do anything to protect it.

Before you dismiss this as crazy, new-age hippy talk, hear me out; I believe I’ve got a point here.

Like any scientific hypothesis, we don’t only expect it to explain some known phenomena (more on that later on), we also expect it to be able to illuminate and explain other, more subtle, behaviour.
Let’s try that.

So if we accept, as a working thesis, that we treat our code like our baby, it means that a bug found in our code is like being told that our baby has some sort of a horrible disease.
It’s shocking and heartbreaking news.

“Your little girl has a bug in her command-line interface. I’m afraid it’s terminal.”

And, we would expect, that we respond to this kind of news with the appropriate feelings of grief and mourning. Let’s see.

Stages of grief

True story:
Earlier in my career, I was a team lead for a fairly large team (around 7 devs).
Me, and the developers who were more junior / new to the team in one office (so that they can get assistance from me easily), and a few more senior team members in the other room (free from the ‘pestering’ of the juniors).

One of our senior team members in the other room, let’s call him ‘Jerry’, was a super talented developer, although a bit young and rash at the time.
He’s a really stand-up guy, also with a great sense of humor, and not afraid to show his emotions.

I’ll try and transcribe here a typical chat log of banter between Jerry and me (yes, we used chat to communicate from the other room. After all, laziness is a virtue :)), that demonstrates quite nicely the different stages of grief Jerry went through whenever a bug was found:

Jerry> Finally! just finished and pushed the changes to the reports. Yay!
Me> Cool man! well done. I’ll take a look in a second.

<5 minute pause while I check-out the code, fire up the system and play around with it>

Me> It doesn’t work.

Stage 1: Denial

In this stage individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality.

Jerry> What do you mean? of course it works, I tested it.
Me> Nope, I’m getting an exception here.
Jerry> Are you sure you have the correct branch checked out?
Me> Yes, I’m sure; I can see the new button you’ve added here. And I’m getting an exception.
Jerry> That’s impossible! Show me!

Stage 2: Anger

When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated.
Certain responses in this phase would be: “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”

Jerry (storming into my office, destroying everything in his wake, throwing terror into the hearts of the more junior developers): How can you be getting an exception??!? I’m telling you I thoroughly tested this code!!
Me (showing on screen): See, if you select a filter before clicking ‘generate report’, the whole thing crashes.
Jerry: Oh, filtering! I forgot about filtering!! Why do I always get these stupid edge cases??!!

<1 minute pause as Jerry contemplates the exception on the screen>

Jerry: A-ha!! I’ve GOT it!
I’ll tell you what – It’s that idiot <insert name of a developer who left the company>’s fault! He did such a lousy job with the filtering, no wonder it crashes!

Stage 3: Bargaining

The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief.
People can bargain or seek compromise.

Jerry: Wait a minute, hang on! But why would anyone use a filter before generating a report?? That doesn’t make any sense! They would never do that! Nobody does that. Why would they do that???
Me: Well, it looks like a pretty legitimate workflow to me…
Jerry: Look, I know Morty and Helen (our main customers and power users). They never filter a report before generating it.
In fact, they never even filter a report at all! I bet you that no-one even uses this stupid feature anyway!
You know how this filtering thing came about? It’s because Helen was able to do filtering in Excel, so she thought that our system must be able to do it too.
But they’ve never used it since we developed it!
Why don’t we just remove the filtering option here, and everything will be ok?
Me: Jerry, we’re not going to remove this feature.

Stage 4: Depression

“I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”. During the fourth stage, the individual despairs.
In this state, they may become silent, mournful and sullen.

Jerry ( miserably retreating back to his office): Fine, I’ll fix it…

Jerry (indistinctly, from the other room, talking to a colleague): You know what the problem was? It was <developer who left>’s stupid filtering! And now I have to fix it! What’s the point of developing new features if I have to keep going back to fix someone else’s mess??

Stage 5: Acceptance

<30 minutes of debugging>

Jerry (Clearly heard screaming from the other room): OOOH!! NOW I’ve GOT it! Of course!!! What an idiot I’ve been!

<1 minute pause>

Jerry>  Yeah, you were right, I forgot to check the filter values before generating a report.
Anyway, I fixed it now, it’s all good.
Me> Cool man! well done. I’ll take a look in a second.

<5 minute pause while I check-out the code, fire up the system and play around with it>

Me> It doesn’t work.

etc.. etc..

So we can see clearly here that Jerry, indeed, treats his code in a very personal, emotional way.
And, although you yourselves don’t usually get genuinely angry when your code doesn’t work, or desperately try to redefine a bug as a feature, can you not see a little of yourselves, or your colleagues, in Jerry?

What else?

As I mentioned earlier, this theory can explain a few other strange ways in which developers relate to their code:

  1. Response to criticism –
    As developers, we pride ourselves on being rational creatures;
    If there’s a better, more efficient way of doing something than what we’re currently doing, we would be happy to learn and improve. Right?This is where any of you who’s ever worked on a development team goes “Yeah, right…”. It’s never like that.You always have to fight tooth and nail with someone to get them to change their code, long after you’ve proven to them that your suggestion is better.
    And of course, a day later, when they make a suggestion to you, they have to do the same thing.

    This is because that, even though you know that your child isn’t perfect, you’d be damned if you’re going to let some stranger tell you that!

    That baby is your pride and joy, and it doesn’t need any fixing.
    It’s beautiful just the way god you created it.

  2. Developers can’t find bugs in their own code –
    How many times have you grappled with some code that mysteriously just won’t work, unable to make any progress, until a colleague passes by your desk and says “oh, you know you forgot to insert a trailing ‘;’ there, right?”. You were looking at it all that time, yet you just couldn’t see it.Researches have found that code review is an effective way to find bugs.
    Even those who disagree note that 1 out of 6 review comments indicates a possible bug. That’s a lot.

    So how come someone, who has less intimate knowledge of the code than I do, can find a bug by looking at it for 5 minutes, which I haven’t found looking at my own code for 5 hours?

    This is because, to me, my baby is perfect. I’m so in love with it, I’m just not able to see any of its flaws.

    “Yes, it’s quite breathtaking”

    As a side note, this is one of the justified reasons that DHH (creator of the Rails framework) has his knickers in a bunch over TDD; You can’t expect a programmer to test their own code effectively.

Afterword (or, “so what?”)

So was Jerry a bad developer who kept pushing bugs into the codebase?
Not in the slightest. He was one of the best I’ve worked with, not the least because he had the great showmanship and sense of humor to act out this wonderful show almost on a daily basis.

Since then, I haven’t seen any developer act out their grief in such an obvious way. But if you know what to watch for – I bet you can see it with every developer, not the least in yourselves.

And this is, I guess, the moral of this whole story – if you can recognize this behaviour, you can take steps to avoid it, or counter it.

Whenever I get a comment or a suggestion regarding my code, I’m mindful that I’m inherently biased, and try to balance accordingly.
I found this realization has helped me considerably in accepting suggestions and improving my skills.

Like another great developer friend of mine once told me:

“If you don’t look at code that you’ve written six months ago and think ‘What is this crap? How could I have been so stupid?’, it means you haven’t improved.” 

2 thoughts on “The 5 stages of developer grief

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