I Miss Being an Amateur

Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life.

— person who has never worked as a software developer

I think that programming is fun. Or at least I think that I think programming is fun. Or maybe I think that I should think that programming is fun, because thinking programming is fun is what someone would think if they spent their free time programming while also being employed as a full-time as a software engineer. Okay this is getting out of hand, I think I need to take a second to sort this all out...

I started programming recreationally years before I ever considered software development as a possible occupation. A decent amount of my young adult life was spent creating basic games, building simulations, and writing quaint automation scripts for no other reason than "because I wanted to". It didn't matter if the graphics were terrible. It didn't matter that the programs were a mess of spaghetti code. It didn't matter if an application would crash when you gave it unexpected input. Programming was fun and the labor of programming was worth doing for its own sake.

At some point during my stint in higher education, I realized that I was spending almost all of my free time programming instead of going to class or doing homework. I was nearly halfway through an engineering degree when I made the wise decision to change my major to computer science and get some formal training in the thing that had at this point become my passion. I took programming courses. I started reading programming books and the blogs of popular software developers. I participated in my school's internship program. And I started putting more effort into my programming side projects. Through internships, and eventually full-time employment, I transitioned from an amateur programmer to a bonafide software engineer. It would still take a few years for me to grow and operate above a junior level, and it would take even longer to get to the point where I considered myself to be a "good" programmer, but somewhere along the way I became a professional, and professionals have standards.

Professionals care about software architecture. Professionals care about API design. Professionals care about testing. Professionals care about portability. Professionals care about dependency management. Professionals care about maintenance costs and technical debt. Professionals care about deliverables and project planning. Professionals care about a lot of stuff! And if you are professional like me then it is incredibly difficult to get back into the mindset of an amateur when working on hobby projects.

Sunder started as a purely academic exercise that I intended to wrap up with my Celebrating One Year of Sunder blog post. But I ended up putting another two years and hundreds of hours into the project because I knew it could be better. Even now, there is a list of minor language-level faults1 in Sunder that bother me to no end even though they are non-issues in practice. My current side-project, a networked Settlers of Catan clone has become exhausting to work on. I overthink the trade-offs associated with every choice I make instead of just building the damn game and having fun. Recently I stressed over the details of byte-string escaping in a totally non-production-grade-just-for-personal-use data interchange library. I know the importance of internationalization, and some part of my brain needed to make sure that "Björn Ironside" can appear verbatim as text, even though I work almost exclusively with ASCII data in all of my projects.

When I was an amateur I didn't focus on the little details so much. I was just happy to build software that did something cool and worked for the set of use cases I cared about during development. Programming was enjoyable because there were no strings attached - all play and no work. Now that relationship is more complicated, because even when there are no expectations, no goals, no deliverables, no stakeholders, and no strings attached, it is difficult for me to shut off the part of my brain that treats programming as job.

I miss being an amateur. I miss the ignorant bliss of not knowing the "right" way to do things. I miss being able to fail without denting my ego. I miss experimenting. I miss having separation between work and recreation. I miss not feeling burnt out.

And just to be clear, programming is something that I still enjoy. Or at least I think it is something that I still enjoy. It would be difficult to put so many hours into software development as a hobby if I wasn't getting something back out of it. But I am have a hard time telling how much of that enjoyment is coming from a genuine love of creating something new versus how much of that enjoyment is coming from me executing on a skill set that has become comfortable to me. It's a really messy position to be in, and I'm not too sure how to feel about it.

Perhaps spending some time away from computers during my recreational hours will give me the space I need to sort out my relationship to programming. I have other hobbies, some of which do not involve me sitting in front of a screen. Cooking is something that I really enjoy even though I am pretty terrible at it. I used to spend a couple nights a week long-distance running, and that was really great for clearing my head. Before I went all in on software development I used to spend a lot of time solving math and physics problems2. Maybe there is an opportunity to re-learn some engineering fundamentals without the pressure of an academic institution or my career development looming in the background. Maybe I should try to pick up a completely new activity: knitting, or playing guitar, or studying economics, or something else entirely.

I am not sure what the best course of action is here, but I do know that there are other activities that can be fun besides programming. And maybe, just maybe, one of those activities will let me re-capture that wonderful feeling of being an amateur again.


1. Specifically, the lack of order-independence for extend declarations, the lack of a top-level when construct for conditional compilation, the inability to use certain templated types such as std::hash_map and std::hash_set in recursive type definitions, and the lack of strictly standards-compliant C code generation, to name a few.

2. I spent an absolutely bonkers amount of time playing the early access version of Kerbal Space Program as a kid. This is the game that got me interested in engineering and rocket science, and I actually remember that one of the first Python programs I ever wrote was a thrust-to-weight ratio calculator to check whether my rockets would be able to take off from other planets after landing.