Why do programmers wear headphones while working?

There is one critically important reason to wear headphones while programming. When you understand the impact of this, it will change how you think about what it means to make things and what that process really requires.

Programmers wear headphones so that they won’t be bothered. That much is pretty obvious. The reason why being bothered is an issue is something I’ll get to in a moment.

You see, the modern workplace is designed to ruin programmer productivity. If I were to design an office space to maximize programmer output, it would look like the opposite of nearly every modern office space I’ve ever worked out of.

Actually, I now work in an office that basically maximizes my potential output as a programmer and it really does look like the opposite of most modern corporate offices.

The big gimmick right now in office space design is “open office spaces”. This is designed to improve collaboration (as if that is the great problem of modern work).

Open office spaces really exist so that it looks like everybody is busy working. It looks cool to see so many people busily walking around, talking, and in general looking busy. There is a sound component to it as well.

Open office spaces are loud!

But again, it looks and feels like an improvement over the previous decades’ bad idea – cubicle farms.

Also, open office spaces are cheaper than cube farms, so companies are saving money while making everybody look busy (even at the cost of huge productivity decreases).

In general, all of this is terrible for the actual act of programming.

The art of programming tends to rely on the same thing most art relies on – flow.

Getting into the “flow state” where you are focused on a problem deep enough to make connections and leaps and do your best work without “thinking” is where the real magic of programming happens. This is very similar to playing music, writing, and painting.

Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci was expected to paint the Mona Lisa in an open office space while his coworkers and manager would stop him mid stroke every 15 minutes to ask a question. Would he have ever painted it?

No, I don’t think so.

And yet, programming is a creative process that requires a similarly creative environment as most other art does.

Take authors as a similar example. Stephen King doesn’t “collaborate” to write his books. He sits down at the typewriter or keyboard and starts writing. Imagine if he had to do a daily standup about his latest few pages each day with a committee of his peers.

His work would suffer.

It turns out that to code well we rely on that same kind of process of getting into the flow and doing creative work with our minds. It’s how our brains seem to be wired for creative work.

People like Paul Graham have written about Makers Schedule vs. Managers Schedule before with a similar understanding.

It takes something like 5–30 minutes to get into a flow state. If uninterrupted, time distortion kicks in and a couple hours fly by and a bunch of code is created.

Every interruption resets the clock on that process.

So, what programmers need to maximize flow (and thus output) is blocks of 2–4 hours without interruption. Ideally, a whole day without interruption would allow for as many as 3 or 4 blocks of “flow”.

As near as I can tell, the average programmer tends to only get maybe one flow block a day. Sometimes a really diligent programmer will manage two or three flow blocks a day, but that doesn’t happen very often from what I can tell.

Headphones, especially noise canceling headphones (like the ones I’m wearing right now), are an effort by programmers to block out interruptions and stay in a flow state.

With open offices, email, slack notifications, coworkers tapping you on the shoulder, and so on…

It’s almost impossible to get to a flow state as a programmer.

So, my advice to you is simple. If you are a programmer trying to maximize the total productivity and flow blocks each day, wear headphones, avoid meetings, don’t check email, turn off slack, and basically go into a cave and write code.

And if you don’t have the option to do that, accept the fact that you might only be able to get one flow block a day and plan accordingly.

The typical stages in the career of a software engineer?

The career of a software engineer is not an easy one. It’s a tale of hardship and woe, filled with ladders to climb, and management to appease.

Level 1 (0 – 2 years):

You just graduated from college, a young boy with a young boy’s dreams, big eyes and a thirst for life. You start your work hoping to change the world, invent the next big app or make enough money to retire young and spend the rest of your life on exotic beaches, sleeping with models, who have a thing for nerds.

The first few months seem very alike, you’re assigned the same tasks every day, and your only job is not to screw up big time. It’s not what you were hoping for, giving your superior level of intellect and mad skills on the keyboard, but you’re certain that soon enough things will change.

You wake up one day after two years and realize that you’ve been living the same day and writing the same code over and over again. It makes you sad, but you feel a wind of change coming.

Level 2 (2–5 years):

You’re no longer a junior developer now, you’ve been promoted to a full-blown software engineer, basically a rock star, without the money, women, and fame.

You’re no longer being supervised by that old mean engineer who hates you because he knows you’re a better coder than he is. You’re being assigned small tasks, which you accomplish flawlessly -most of the time- and you can finally start feeling valued and useful. Everyone respects you now!… right?

Level 3 (5–10 years):

You’ve been doing this long enough now to be called a senior developer and assigned your own team. You’ve long have given up on your dreams to change the world, sleep with models or even make the next big app, after years of seeing people try to do it and fail, and having tried yourself to launch something and failed at it too, though you wouldn’t admit it, and hide behind the excuse of not giving it much attention or that people are not ready for your creation yet.

On the bright side, you get to handle big projects now and manage your team the way you want to. You also make a lot of money, which is what you always hoped for! But on the downside, you’re honestly not into coding that much anymore, your team is a bunch of brats who constantly think they’re better than you, without realizing you’ve been helping them grow all along, and you’re very sure they see you as the old mean guy who’s there to make their life hell, oh! And although you do make a lot of money, almost half of it goes to pay the rent or mortgage, because you had to move to an expensive city to get a big offer.

Level 4 (10–20 years):

At this point in your career, you have a choice to make, either you join management and become another suit who’s only concern is cutting corners to save money, and to meet this quarter’s earnings expectations, or to continue being a developer, who’s work now consists of managing multiple teams and making sure everyone’s doing their job.

You were always a rebel, you chose to code because it gave you freedom, heck, you wrote your best lines listening to Rock and Roll, so I’ll assume you’d go with continuing on your path as a developer.

It’s been years since you enjoyed coding or even went to the office excited about something. Last night you looked in the mirror and saw your empty dead eyes looking back at you, and you couldn’t help but remember the young boy with dreams and hopes who came into work with a big stupid smile and shiny eyes, and you decide to do something about this. You realized that just because you didn’t get everything you wanted, it doesn’t mean that your life or career was not fulfilling, and maybe its time for you to move on, and to start giving lectures or maybe even take a teaching position, to make sure that the newer generation does not end up the way you did.

Level 5 (20 years+):

At this point, you discover that you’ve been granted the powers of an almighty wizard, by the benevolent gods of coding. You magically turn to 24 again and have a spell for infinite money.

You get your happy ending after all, and you spend the rest of your life on exotic beaches sleeping with models.