Here in Melbourne we’ve been in lockdown for a couple of weeks, so I wanted a fun post that was also a reminder of travel. And so I was reminded of the time I was asked whether software developers were scared of the sun. Spoiler: We’re not.
It was February 2016 - a little over five years ago - and I was in Kosciuszcko National Park. It’s a beautiful area: The air seems so clear, and even things in the far distance seem close.
I’d decided to climb the two highest peaks in Australia (Mount Kosciuszcko and Mount Townsend) on the same day. I’d actually climbed Kosciuszcko by a different route a couple of days before, and there is a clear trail, so I knew roughly what to expect from it. Mount Townsend was a little harder to find the start of the trail, but once I found it the cairns made the trail fairly easy to follow.
I saw a brumby near the trail:
Apart from that, I thought I was alone. Yes, earlier I’d seen a couple of people setting up a tent in the valley, but I was well off the beaten track and there was no sign of them. All was quiet as I reached the dramatic approach to the summit:
And then I heard voices.
At first I thought I was dreaming, but no: When I reached the top, there were already two people there. They were pretty surprised to see me too.
We started off by talking about the scenery and what had brought us there. Then the conversation moved on to that defining question: “What do you do?” When I said I was a software developer, one of them said “I thought they were scared of the sun?”
What could I say? I probably walked at least 30 km that day, saw lots of sun, and didn’t get down till after sunset, but hey - who was I to reject the software development stereotype?
The stereotypical software developer
Software developers would often be considered “geeks” or “nerds”: Intensely logical, obsessively focused, and subsisting largely on pizza and coffee or Coke while working through the night. In fact, almost a separate race of beings.
Take for example Steve McConnell’s description in Orphans Preferred:
The stereotypical programmer is a shy young man who works in a darkened room, intensely concentrating on magical incantations that coax the computer to do his bidding. He can concentrate 12-16 hours at a time, often working through the night to realize his artistic vision. He subsists on pizza and Twinkies. When interrupted, the programming creature responds violently, hurling strings of cryptic acronyms at his interrupter - “TCP/IP, RPC, RCS, SCSI, ISA, ACM, and IEEE!” The programmer breaks his intense concentration only to attend Star Trek conventions and watch Monty Python reruns. He is sometimes regarded as an indispensable genius, sometimes as an eccentric artist. Vital information is stored in his head and his head alone. He is secure knowing that, valuable as he is, precious few people compete for his job.
That was 20 years ago and I’m sure some things have changed, but the stereotype has persisted. Some of it applies to me - I like pizza, for example, even if I don’t have it that often, I’m introverted and not always socially aware, and I can work late into the night (though maybe not on software development).
Some of it makes sense as a stereotype: Like many professions, software development has built up its share of jargon. Instructing computers requires logic, and it can also involve many levels of abstraction which require focus to keep straight. Those who choose it are more likely to be introverted and to value logic over emotion.
But none of that condemns us to work through the night. We’re not vampires or stone trolls. We won’t be weakened or vaporised or turned into stone by the merest glance of sunlight. Nor do we just hide in our corners coding all day: There’s collaboration and sometimes heated arguments and communication with customers and probably many other tasks.
When it comes to planning our day, many software developers (including me) have real office jobs with fairly standard hours. There are no 16 hour days, and ideally when we leave the office work is left behind us. That means that even in winter the majority of our working hours are during daylight.
Covid has disrupted this a little, and for me there may have been the occasional time working from home where I’ve given up on a problem in frustration and come back to solve it after midnight, but I still don’t find that the norm.
In my experience, window seats are generally valued. These allow developers to look out on the real world and maybe even catch a glimpse of the sun. And some (including me) choose to go walking in our lunch break, even if the sun is shining.
Not defined by our work
I’ve certainly had colleagues doing things that fit some of the stereotypes well. For example, I’ve had colleagues who play computer games and keep up with all the latest technology. I’ve had colleagues who read technical books or tried to keep up with the latest trend or the latest programming language. I’ve had colleagues who enrolled in online software development classes or taken part in programming contests. I’ve had colleagues who’ve been involved with open source projects.
But there’s far more to it. The work we choose does often say something about us, but it doesn’t define us.
I’ve had colleagues who always know the latest TV show, and colleagues who don’t. I’ve had colleagues who follow various sports, and colleagues who couldn’t care less about sport. I’ve had colleagues who follow politics closely, and colleagues who know little about it and care less. I’ve had colleagues who care passionately about the environment, and colleagues who don’t.
I’ve had colleagues who are heavily involved with board games, with specific fandoms, or with cosplay. I’ve had colleagues who are involved in organised team sports, or triathlon, or martial arts, or rock climbing, or hiking. I’ve had colleagues who’ve studied languages, who’ve studied theology, even one with a PhD in Linguistics. I’ve had colleagues who volunteer for emergency services.
I’ve had colleagues who are married or in a relationship and talk about the various ways they choose to spend time with their partner. I’ve had colleagues with children, who talk about things like child-care and school, about taking kids to sporting events or music lessons or birthday parties, about setting standards, about juggling priorities.
And that’s just some of the ones I’ve heard over the years: It would probably surprise me how some of my colleagues spent and spend their time, and maybe it would surprise them how I use my time.
Some of them apply to me, and some of them don’t. Some of them are fairly unusual, while others could suit people in just about any job. Some fit standard software developer stereotypes, and some don’t. And that’s OK. We’re individuals, and we’re not defined by our job.
An eventful 2016
Unknown to the two I met back in 2016, it was to be my most significant hiking year to date. In fact, it’s probably still the most significant year, though hiking wasn’t as integrated in my weekly calendar as it is now.
Kosciuszcko, as the high point of Australia, was the only the first of five national high spots: In addition, I’d aimed to conquer the UK Three Peaks as part of a longer UK trip, and found that I could add the Isle of Man’s Snaefell for good measure. I also climbed a number of other significant peaks, including discovering the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of Switzerland and finally doing the nearly 30 km circuit to my local mountain from my front door.
However, my most significant hiking achievement for the year - and one I’m still glad to remember today - was thru-hiking the Pennine Way. Even though it’s in the north of England, you don’t go on the Pennine Way in summer if you’re scared of the sun or of the great outdoors. Once you include walking to and from off-trail accommodation, I reckon over the 19 days I would have averaged 25 km / day. With a full pack.
When I returned from the UK, I took the first steps towards changing hiking from a holiday activity to a way of life. I adopted a philosophy of everyday hiking, and have spent long hours under the light of the sun (though I also appreciate moon-lit walks).
Then, to finish the year on a good note, I spent the Christmas break working on starting this blog. That included writing about my hiking for the first time.
My Covid response
Last year, my Covid-19 response just confirmed how important hiking had become to me. My first post about it was Covid-19 and the hiker, which was largely a defence of continuing to walk (a permitted and, in my view, relatively safe activity) despite the overwhelming “stay at home” message. In the following year of working from home I did a lot of walking in the local area. Even in winter I saw the sun - sometimes on a mid-day walk, but frequently sinking below the horizon in a beautiful sunset.
When we re-opened, I went hiking in the Alps (including a return to Kosciuszcko for the first time since that original 2016 encounter).
This year, I planned to walk the Great Ocean Walk in February, had it disrupted by lockdown, then actually completed it in March:
There was definitely sun at the end of the walk:
I’m a software developer. I spend many hours on a computer each day. But I also enjoy spending time in the great outdoors.
Another software developer
Near the end of 2014, I read David Miller’s AWOL on the Appalachian Trail. In his words:
I wrote this brief description of myself before starting my hike: I am 41 years old, and I’ve worked since getting out of college as a computer programmer. I’m in decent shape for a person who’s been holed up in an office for so long. I’m married and have three little girls. Our fifteenth wedding anniversary will pass in my absence. Nothing is wrong with my life. My family is outstanding. I have what most people would consider to be a decent job. I’m not unhappy, and I’m not hiking to escape from anything. My life is precariously normal. I’ve been told that taking this trip at this time in my life is irresponsible, a charge I won’t contest. Maybe doing it later in life would make more sense. But my father had bypass surgery and my mom is fighting cancer. My opinion of “later” is jaded. I’m headed for Maine.
At the time, there was something about his writing that appealed to me. Looking back at it now, I think he showed a somewhat introspective and analytical side which appealed to me - not something that’s limited to software development, of course, but probably more common in software development than in the general public.
I read it a few months after I’d done a lot of day hikes in the US West in summer. There was a lot of sun, and it was much warmer than a winter in Australia. For example, I remember walking in the Grand Canyon in the sun thinking it wasn’t that hot, then coming to a thermometer showing 102 degrees in the shade…
I’d averaged at least 40 miles a week, which is significant but nothing compared to thru-hiking, and a few of his experiences matched mine.
At the time, though, I’d never done a single overnight hike. The Appalachian Trail is nearly 2,200 miles long and took him months. He had to quit his job to make the opportunity (though, as it turned out, he was re-hired immediately afterward). It seemed like a crazy undertaking.
I had plans to return to the UK, but I’m pretty sure they only involved day hiking. I had no idea then that it would be 9 months till my disastrous first overnight hike, and little more than 18 months till I’d be walking the Pennine Way. And yet I know his book influenced me and made me consider thru-hiking. More than anyone else, he gave me the idea it was doable. As he said:
Now I am more comfortable talking with people about my experience. When they say, “I would love to do something like that,” I know how to respond. “You can.”
Reading through my highlights from the book last week, I was intrigued to see how many of the things he noticed on the Appalachian Trail were things that I noticed independently on the Pennine Way. I’m not sure whether that’s because we’re both software developers, or both thru-hikers, or that there’s something special in the combination.
And a data scientist…
I first heard of John Kelly last year when he broke a 30 year old record for the Pennine Way Fastest Known Time. Within a week he’d lost the record, but re-captured it last month. That second time he did in a bit under 2.5 days the route that took me 19 days with an injury break in the middle.
I’m not sure whether data science is quite close enough to software development, but I find him inspirational so I’m going to claim him anyway.
He goes both faster and further than me, and pushes his boundaries far more systematically than I do. He writes about it, too. And in his FAQ he has a similar message to David Miller:
The most surprising and rewarding outcome of my racing has been in hearing how it has motivated or inspired other people, and I hope that sharing a bit more might help a few more people get out there to enjoy racing and see what they’re capable of.
Want to know something funny?
I’ve talked a lot about software development, but perhaps you’ve been wondering what the intrepid pair I met did for a living. Fear not, I found that out: One was an accountant, while the other was a solicitor.
Perhaps not professions that would be stereotypically involved in overnight hiking or mountain climbing. I don’t say this to mock them. If that’s what they want to do in their free time, all power to them.
But my point is that it wasn’t just me. All three of us had desk jobs. Going by the stereotypes, none of us should have been there. And yet, there we were. And I believe we were all there because we wanted to be there.
Looking past the stereotypes
Software development as a profession has a very specific set of stereotypes. Some of them apply to more software developers than others, but no stereotype will apply to every person.
Many software developers, like me and my colleagues, have desk jobs with fairly regular hours. As a result, we have a lot in common with people in other desk jobs, including the ability to have a life outside work.
Personally, in my teens and early twenties I very much defined myself as a software developer. But even then the stereotypes didn’t completely fit me. Now my interests have widened, and so I no longer define myself that way. I recognise that my choice of career has contributed significantly to making me who I am - but it doesn’t define me.
To me, the bottom line is that if you’re software developer, you can follow as many or as few of the stereotypes as you see fit. It’s your choice. And the same is true for other professions too.
Getting out in the sun
I’d say much the same as David Miller and John Kelly: If my experiences can encourage others to get out and try something they want to do that isn’t “normal” and doesn’t fit the stereotype, I’d be glad.
The truth is that if you want to get out in the sun more, you probably can. If you want to go hiking more on weekends, you probably can. The same is true if you want to join an organised sport, or to work towards a race or a marathon or a long distance thru-hike.
I’m not suggesting it will be easy. It may need a lot of preparation. It may take a lot of time. There may be logistical challenges to overcome, and there may be other things you need to give up. And it’s completely up to you to decide whether you think the goal worthy and the time and effort worth spending.
My experience has been that it’s not just possible but valuable to move beyond the stereotypes of my profession, to try something different, and to push my limits a little. Maybe I’ll need to look for new challenges soon. Maybe I won’t.
But for now I know that the hiking I do greatly improves my life, so I intend to continue with it. Even if it means I have to see the sun sometimes.