You Won’t Be Remembered For Your Code

A lot of people who are first getting into the software industry seem to think that they’re going to make some kind of impact with their code. The dumber ones think it’s going to be some kind of huge splash, like people are going to print their code on giant wall scrolls and put it up in museums so future programmers can come through and admire its structure and that amazing little trick with the lambda. The smarter ones know it will be a small impact, but they still think it will be an impact of some kind.

Allow me to rain on your parade: you will never be remembered for your code. Code in industry software is endlessly erased and rewritten. Even that picture of a penis you carved into the wall of a bathroom stall in sixth grade and then initialed like it was some great work of art is more likely to still be there, because replacing the walls of bathroom stalls is expensive and laborious. But erasing your clever little trick with the lambda and replacing it with ten lines of plodding that even the biggest dunderhead couldn’t possibly fail to understand takes about five minutes, and people who erase code are on salary, so it didn’t even cost the company five minutes of work, whereas people who replace bathroom stall walls get paid hourly. Plus, now even the biggest dunderhead couldn’t possibly fail to understand that code, so they can fire the programmer who replaced your clever little lambda trick and hire the biggest dunderhead for a lower salary.

No one is remembered for code. Steve Jobs is remembered for product design and marketing. Bill Gates will be remembered for being insanely rich. Programming languages are products, so programming language creators are also remembered as product designers, not for their wonderful code, and they’re easily forgotten once no one is using the language anymore; give it twenty years and Larry Wall will be a random piece of programming trivia alongside Jon Ousterhout, Jean Ichbiah, and Niklaus Wirth. Same goes for frameworks, which are even more disposable than programming languages. If anyone remembers David Heinemeier Hansson or Rails at all, it won’t be for some ingenious metaprogramming trick he used in Active Record.

And these are the really famous people, the people whose code actually affected the way thousands of others do their jobs. Even they will not be remembered for how wonderful their code was. So trust me when I say that you won’t be remembered for your great code.

However, if your code sucks, it will keep your memory alive for a while. Every time someone goes into a sloppily formatted file with dozens of unnecessary global variables, lots of overlong methods, and comments that say x++; // Add one to x, they’ll head on over to Git and find out who wrote this crap. If you wrote enough of the code, you might even become something of a legend for a while. Of course, the other programmers will make a point of extinguishing your imprint from the code, so your code is still headed for death, and your legend will live on only in the tales the other programmers tell of the crappy code they suffered with until they could sneak in enough refactoring to eliminate it. You’ll be remembered, but you’ll be remembered the same way Tom Green is remembered, as an irritating bore that everyone raced to expurgate as quickly as humanly possible.

So don’t get into software if you think code is a good way to be remembered. It’s not. Product design is more likely to get you remembered by someone, but that’s not foolproof either; not many people, even in programming circles, have heard of Ward Cunningham, who invented the wiki, or Dan Bricklin, who invented the spreadsheet, even though those are both products at least as important as anything Steve Jobs ever made.