John Cook is an applied mathematician working in Houston, Texas. His career has been a blend of research, software development, consulting, and management. John is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 172 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Productivity and negative space

11.17.2011
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My post Why programmers are not paid in proportion to their productivity has been getting a lot of buzz today. One of the arguments in that post is that the most productive programmers know where they can find software to do parts of their job. When they reuse existing code rather than writing their own from scratch, nobody notices. They probably don’t even notice themselves, at least not often.

The work you don’t do is a sort of negative space, like the shape formed by the empty space in a painting or the silence in a piece of music. It’s hard to appreciate what’s not there. It’s hard for a business to reward the unnecessary work that someone avoids doing.

Venkatesh Rao has a different take on what makes some people far more effective than others. In his post Thrust, Drag, and the 10x Effect, he says that the people who are 10x more productive are the those who allocate large, uninterrupted blocks of time to work on difficult creative tasks.

Rao’s observation would also help explain why super programmers do not earn super wages, and it ties into the idea of negative space. People who fracture their time putting out fires seem more productive, or at least more responsive, than the people who block out time to think. It’s harder to notice someone not being frantic. Thinkers don’t fare well in environments that reward activity more than accomplishment.

Related post:

Negative space in operating systems
It doesn’t pay to be the computer guy

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