Here’s the real reason Silicon Valley coders write bad software

Windows Vista could have benefited from coders who knew how to write.
Windows Vista could have benefited from coders who knew how to write.
Image: AP Photo / Koji Sasahara
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I’m a senior software engineer at a mid-sized tech startup in Silicon Valley. In this job, I use and write a lot of code. I also put out a small literary magazine, Sensitive Skin, in which I publish short works by groundbreaking creative writers like Samuel Delany, Patrick McGrath, and Lynne Tillman (and earlier this year, a newly unearthed interview between Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs).

In my experience, the kind of explicit writing instruction described in Peg Tyre’s Atlantic story enables people to write powerful sentences—and sometimes, when tempered with genius, great short stories. But this advanced degree of writing ability is also key to helping our country maintain its competitive edge in technology.

That’s partly because coding is not a solitary pursuit. It’s a team sport where we reuse other people’s code. For example, if you’re making a game with a bouncing ball, and you need to draw a red circle an inch in diameter, make it bounce across a screen, and glow when you click it with your mouse, you can do it in just a line or two of code—equivalent to a sentence or two—because all the heavy lifting was performed by someone else years before. We reuse the hard work of others via easily accessible libraries, called APIs.

The computer world is based on using APIs. Zynga uses the Facebook APIs to embed its games on FaceBook. Any iPhone or iPad app uses the iOS API to let you move stuff by swiping the screen. WordPress is built on a series of APIs that lets just about anybody build a web site in minutes.

However, even the best of these APIs are hard to use because the documentation, supposedly written in English, is terrible. Most engineers can’t write a single coherent sentence, never mind string together a paragraph.

Poor documentation is the bane of my existence. At my company, when you’re finished on a project, you’re supposed to write up instructions in our Wiki, a private Wikipedia shared by our 400 employees worldwide. An enormous amount of time is spent explaining one’s code to other people. Telling somebody to “look it up in the Wiki” is tantamount to telling them to go f*** themselves. If someone had taught these coders to write well, we’d waste less valuable time.

Most importantly, though, explicit writing instruction reinforces the logic of language—including the language of technology. Coding requires a certain kind of logic that’s not unlike working on a crossword puzzle. It’s all very self-contained, with its own internal logic. Being able to follow that logic requires understanding the basic logic of a sentence—the kind of thing that is taught as a basic writing skill. That single ability is often what makes the difference between good coders and great ones.

Many programmers are self-taught and meet the minimum requirement for writing code—which is, in large part, the ability to count to eight. (Incidentally, that explains why there are so many coders who are also musicians, skilled at manipulating octaves.) But the downfall of many programmers, not just self-taught ones, is their lack of ability to sustain complex thought and their inability to communicate such thoughts. That leads to suboptimal code, foisting upon the world mediocre (at best) software like Windows Vista, Adobe Flash, or Microsoft Word.

Steve Jobs once famously said that all the minutes wasted through bad software add up to lifetimes lost. If all the programmers I’ve worked with in my career had had good writing instructions, they would have been forced at an early age to think clearly, to communicate complex thoughts, and to combine simple ideas into compound ideas. These ideas, later written as code, would have resulted in better products. As I see it, our country’s ability to maintain its technological advantage is very much intertwined with this discussion about teaching explicit writing skills in our schools.

The point of Tyre’s article is that we need to teach people how to think. Once you can think, you can, with the right instruction, learn to write a good sentence. Once you can write a good sentence, then, and only then, do you have a shot at writing a great short story—or code that can change the world and help maintain America’s leadership position through the 21st century.

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