How to become a Fool Stack Programmer

At least once in your career as a programmer, and hopefully more than once and with deliberate regularity, it is important to leave the comfort of your usual place along the stack and travel up or down it. While you usually fix bugs and add features using a particular application, tool, or API and work on top of some platform, SDK, or operating system, this time you choose to climb down a wrung and work below. In doing so you are working on instead of with something.

There are a number of important outcomes of changing levels. First, what you previously took for granted, and simply used as such, suddenly comes into view as a thing unto itself. This layer that you've been standing on, the one that felt so turns out to have also have been built, just like the things you build from above! It sounds obvious, but in my experience, the effect it has on your approach from this point forward is drastically changed. Second, and very much related to the first, your likelihood to lash out when you encounter bugs or performance and implementation issues gets abated. You gain empathy and understanding.

If all you ever do is use an implementation, tool, or API, and never build or maintain one, it's easy to take them for granted, and speak about them in detached ways: Why would anyone do it this way? Why is this so slow? Why won't they fix this bug after 12 years! And then, Why are they so stupid as to have done this thing?

Now, the same works in the other direction, too. Even though there are more people operating at the higher level and therefore need to descend to do what I'm talking about, those underneath must also venture above ground. If all you've ever done is implement things, and never gone and used such implementations to build real things, you're just as guilty, and equally, if not more likely to snipe and complain about people above you, who clearly don't understand how things really work. It's tantalizingly easy to dismiss people who haven't worked at your level: it's absolutely true that most of them don't understand your work or point of view. The way around this problem is not to wait and hope that they will come to understand you, but to go yourself, and understand them.

Twitter, HN, reddit, etc. are full of people at both levels making generalizations, lobbing frustration and anger at one another, and assuming that their level is the only one that actually matters (or exists). Fixing this problem globally will never happen; but you can do something at the personal level.

None of us enjoys looking foolish or revealing our own ignorance. And one of the best ways to avoid both is to only work on what we know. What I'm suggesting is that you purposefully move up or down the stack and work on code, and with tools, people, and processes that you don't know. I'm suggesting that you become a Fool, at least in so far as you allow yourself to be humbled by this other world, with its new terminology, constraints, and problems. By doing this you will find that your ability to so easily dismiss the problems of the other level will be greatly reduced. Their problems will become your problems, and their concerns your concerns. You will know that you've correctly done what I'm suggesting when you start noticing yourself referring to "our bug" and "how we do this" instead of "their" and "they."

Becoming a Fool Stack Programmer is not about becoming an expert at every level of the stack. Rather, its goal is to erase the boundary between the levels such that you can reach up or down in order to offer help, even if that help is only to offer a kind word of encouragement when the problem is particularly hard: these are our problems, after all.

I'm grateful to this guy who first taught me this lesson, and encouraged me to always keep moving up the stack.