The Free Electron Legend


A few days ago I read the single most productive engineer that you’re ever going to meet – Free Electron which glorifies the ultimate hacker, for example, there’s a story about this computer geek which re-wrote the whole DAO layer in one week – something which took two other engineers approximately six months…

Personally, I don’t like the glorification that is done around coding “rock-stars” and programming geniuses. I rather have a collaborative environment, such that you won’t be afraid to make mistakes, but unfortunately in most of the organizations I ran into it’s more important to cover your butt and be a politician than actually be a good engineer (which includes to be able to make mistakes too!).

Anyways. it reminded me of another story, one that happened back in the 80’s. I heard this one from Mayer Goldbreg, a professor that taught a compilation course I took during my studies for a On that course we built all our projects using a weird language called  Scheme which is a functional programming language that has a syntax that doesn’t look very appealing to the majority of object oriented programmers:

(let loop ((n 1))
  (if (> n 10)
      (cons n
            (loop (+ n 1)))))

===> (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10)

It took some time getting used to the weird syntax with all the nested brackets (oh god – just thinking about all the times I counted opening/closing brackets…)

But I’m diverting… so back to the story: Mayer had a friend which, not surprisingly, was such a free electron. He worked for a big company that used some low-level programming language (let’s call it X) to maintain their platform. As you can imagine, maintenance was hell, not to mention adding new features or finding bugs. But that friend came up with this great idea: he wanted to write a compiler from Scheme to X – after his project will be completed life will be sweet – everything will become much easier!

This guy had just one problem, his boss was not so enthusiastic about that idea… After a few arguments his boss told him specifically that he should forget about it – but like any good free electron he didn’t…

It didn’t take him long to build that compiler, sure enough, he had a few bugs – but he fixed them and sooner than he himself expected – he would produce so many lines of generated (and unreadable) code – and it was working great: whenever he got a new assignment – it would practically take him minutes to code it in Scheme and then he would run the compiler and take another 1 hour of coffee break. He was producing the same amount of work of the entire division!

Soon enough, his manager heard the talks and came to his cubical furious. He yelled at him and then fired him. But if you think that this is the end of the story – you’re wrong.

It didn’t take long for the higher management to find out that suddenly all the tasks were taking much longer – and after a few weeks the story got all the way up – this manager call, but now he was practically begging him to come back and maintain his compiler…
He didn’t.

UPDATE: I just ran into the following session and I couldn’t agree more with these guys!

The Free Electron Legend