Making It Look Easy

Do you remember the last time you were in the physical presence of an expert? Do you remember how it felt to watch her perform her art? Perhaps hands dancing through the strings of a guitar or over a keyboard. Perhaps instinctual movements producing new material at needlepoint or temporal painting through dance. Perhaps the gentle swing of a chain-saw sliding through the groves of an unfinished ice sculpture. Perhaps it was nothing more than a delicate, natural conversation with your mentor over coffee.

The further I get away from my childhood fascinations with those whose talents shine through obvious mastery, the closer I come to mastery of my own endeavors. This journey would be long, painful and futile were it not for the company of masters, mentors, peers, and students of my own. When I began such a journey in software development, I expected it to be just so. Such a place seems an unlikely home for experienced craftsmen patient enough to deal with novices like myself.

However, like so many beliefs I’ve held in the past, this understanding of the universe was obliterated by new wisdom and experience; there are experienced software engineers with the talent to appear as magicians and the stoicism to teach me their tricks.

Each companion on this particular journey wields a set of skills as burgeoning and varied as the unexplored landscape itself. The heterogeneous nature of the crowd is seed to my greatest educational pleasures. Some have even shocked me through an experience so humbling I am unable to verbalize the emotional reaction it provoked. Avishek is one of these companions.

Avishek and I paired for a few weeks last fall. Something amazing took place during these pairing sessions, something powerful which was nearly precluded by my puerile purview, something akin to premonitions.

The two of us were tasked with arduously wading into a swamp of legacy code in search of an outlet — an integration point where we would write the bulk of our code. Once found, Avishek and I had a new objective: find the peg corresponding to this little hole. For you see, yet more legacy code awaited us in the form of libraries we were expected to utilize. We would dig a bit, searching and thinking and discussing as we exchanged positions as driver and navigator throughout the afternoon. And as that afternoon went on, the peculiar structures and strange idioms started to wear on my patience. To throw salt in the wound, Avishek really seemed to understand his way around the codebase. We’d jump into a new subsystem and he’d navigate it with pleasure and authority. He had worked in this office for months now, so it was no shock he could see the next passageway with greater clarity than I. The item of interest was not large and so, as Avishek merrily danced through new bits of code I could barely read, my patience with these seemingly endless passageways expired.

“Why on Earth don’t we just do BloogFizzle?!” I finally asked in exasperation.

“Uhm. I’m looking for BloogFizzle, Steve. I’ve never seen this code before.” came Avishek’s calm reply.

And with that, a light bulb came on. Avishek didn’t know this code base any better than I did. He wasn’t familiar with these new idioms, patterns, or layers of indirection and abstraction. He was simply reading, learning and understanding the code quickly enough to pass it on to me in real time. He was master of a skill I wasn’t even aware humans possessed.

Most of us know when we are in the presence of a mastered dancer or pianist. Few of us know when we are in the presence of a master cobbler or computer programmer. Fewer still will see such expertise as I saw that day. Had I not seen it since, my belief in its existence likely would have faltered.

I fly to London tonight. When I get there, I will have the privilege of working with Avishek again (both in the UK and India). To say I’m looking forward to countless new surprises would be a gross understatement, but anything else I would say would only cry testament to the limits of the English language. So I will simply say this: I’m excited.

Essay originally published on Hungry, Horny, Sleepy, Curious. (2007).