About the Author Considered one of softwares most famous developers, Paul Graham is also a venture capitalist and noted essayist. He is the author of Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age. This essay is a reprint from his Web site.
A good programmer working intensively on his own code can hold it
in his mind the way a mathematician holds a problem he's working
on. Mathematicians don't answer questions by working them out on
paper the way schoolchildren are taught to. They do more in their
heads: they try to understand a problem space well enough that they
can walk around it the way you can walk around the memory of the
house you grew up in. At its best programming is the same. You
hold the whole program in your head, and you can manipulate it at
That's particularly valuable at the start of a project, because
initially the most important thing is to be able to change what
you're doing. Not just to solve the problem in a different way,
but to change the problem you're solving.
Your code is your understanding of the problem you're exploring.
So it's only when you have your code in your head that you really
understand the problem.
It's not easy to get a program into your head. If you leave a
project for a few months, it can take days to really understand it
again when you return to it. Even when you're actively working on
a program it can take half an hour to load into your head when you
start work each day. And that's in the best case. Ordinary
programmers working in typical office conditions never enter this
mode. Or to put it more dramatically, ordinary programmers working
in typical office conditions never really understand the problems
Even the best programmers don't always have the whole program they're
working on loaded into their heads. But there are things you can
do to help:
- Avoid distractions. Distractions are bad for many types of work,
but especially bad for programming, because programmers tend to
operate at the limit of the detail they can handle.
The danger of a distraction depends not on how long it is, but
on how much it scrambles your brain. A programmer can leave the
office and go and get a sandwich without losing the code in his
head. But the wrong kind of interruption can wipe your brain
in 30 seconds.
Oddly enough, scheduled distractions may be worse than unscheduled
ones. If you know you have a meeting in an hour, you don't even
start working on something hard.
- Work in long stretches. Since there's a fixed cost each time
you start working on a program, it's more efficient to work in
a few long sessions than many short ones. There will of course
come a point where you get stupid because you're tired. This
varies from person to person. I've heard of people hacking for
36 hours straight, but the most I've ever been able to manage
is about 18, and I work best in chunks of no more than 12.
The optimum is not the limit you can physically endure. There's
an advantage as well as a cost of breaking up a project. Sometimes
when you return to a problem after a rest, you find your unconscious
mind has left an answer waiting for you.
- Use succinct languages. More
powerful programming languages
make programs shorter. And programmers seem to think of programs
at least partially in the language they're using to write them.
The more succinct the language, the shorter the program, and the
easier it is to load and keep in your head.
You can magnify the effect of a powerful language by using a
style called bottom-up programming, where you write programs in
multiple layers, the lower ones acting as programming languages
for those above. If you do this right, you only have to keep
the topmost layer in your head.
- Keep rewriting your program. Rewriting a program often yields
a cleaner design. But it would have advantages even if it didn't:
you have to understand a program completely to rewrite it, so
there is no better way to get one loaded into your head.
- Write rereadable code. All programmers know it's good to write
readable code. But you yourself are the most important reader.
Especially in the beginning; a prototype is a conversation with
yourself. And when writing for yourself you have different
priorities. If you're writing for other people, you may not
want to make code too dense. Some parts of a program may be
easiest to to read if you spread things out, like an introductory
textbook. Whereas if you're writing code to make it easy to reload
into your head, it may be best to go for brevity.
- Work in small groups. When you manipulate a program in your
head, your vision tends to stop at the edge of the code you own.
Other parts you don't understand as well, and more importantly,
can't take liberties with. So the smaller the number of
programmers, the more completely a project can mutate. If there's
just one programmer, as there often is at first, you can do
- Don't have multiple people editing the same piece of code.
never understand other people's code as well as your own. No
matter how thoroughly you've read it, you've only read it, not
written it. So if a piece of code is written by multiple authors,
none of them understand it as well as a single author would.
And of course you can't safely redesign something other people
are working on. It's not just that you'd have to ask permission.
You don't even let yourself think of such things. Redesigning
code with several authors is like changing laws; redesigning
code you alone control is like seeing the other interpretation
of an ambiguous image.
If you want to put several people to work on a project, divide
it into components and give each to one person.
- Start small. A program gets easier to hold in your head as you
become familiar with it. You can start to treat parts as black
boxes once you feel confident you've fully explored them. But
when you first start working on a project, you're forced to see
everything. If you start with too big a problem, you may never
quite be able to encompass it. So if you need to write a big,
complex program, the best way to begin may not be to write a
spec for it, but to write a prototype that solves a subset of
the problem. Whatever the advantages of planning, they're often
outweighed by the advantages of being able to keep a program in