Why programmers work at night: “Being tired makes us better coders”

16 Jan, 2013

Here’s what writing a guest contribution for a website might lead to: programmer Swizec Teller wrote a guest blog on Business Insider about “why coders work at night”, and the reactions to the blog post were so overwhelming that he’s now writing  a book about it (you can buy it at LeanPub, a self publishing site).

It’s an interesting piece about the importance of concentration, and why interruption is so deadly for anyone trying to capture complex ideas into a coherent structure. Here’s a fragment:

“Working on large abstract systems involves fitting the whole thing into your mind – somebody once likened this to constructing a house out of expensive crystal glassand as soon as someone distracts you, it all comes barreling down and shatters into a thousand pieces.

This is why programmers are so annoyed when you distract them.

Because of this huge mental investment, we simply can’t start working until we can expect a couple of hours without being distracted. It’s just not worth constructing the whole model in your head and then having it torn down half an hour later.

In fact, talking to a lot of founders you’ll find out they feel like they simply can’t get any work done during the day. The constant barrage of interruptions, important stuff to tend to and emails to answer simply don’t allow it. So they get most of their “work work” done during the night when everyone else is sleeping.

The sleepy brain

But even programmers should be sleeping at night. We are not some race of super humans. Even programmers feel more alert during the day. Why then do we perform our most mentally complex work work when the brain wants to sleep and we do simpler tasks when our brain is at its sharpest and brightest?

Because being tired makes us better coders.

Similar to the “Ballmer peak”, being tired can make us focus better simply because when your brain is tired it has to focus! There isn’t enough left-over brainpower to afford losing concentration.

(…) when I’m slightly tired, I just plomp my arse down and code. With a slightly tired brain I can code for hours and hours without even thinking about checking twitter or facebook. It’s like the internet stops existing.”

What’s that Ballmer peak he talks about?

This is the “Ballmer Peak” he speaks of, according to the Urban Dictionary: “The Ballmer Peak is a theory that coders obtain superhuman coding ability when they have a blood alcohol concentration percentage between 0.129% and 0.138%.”

It continues with a slightly libellous explanation: “The discovery of this effect is attributed to Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft – who probably “discovered” it by simply monitoring his own perpetually inebriated nervous system, and deducing that programming ability “peaks” after a few drinks and then dips dramatically after full-blown drunkenness ensues.” (found here)

via Why Programmers Work At Night – Business Insider, photo: Flickr

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).