The movie Forrest Gump has been re-playing a lot lately, and, as often happens, I see parallels in the software industry (I've learned not to bring these up to my wife so that I don't get the look). Of course, Forrest was mentally challenged, yet he had a wildly improbable life. The real point of the movie is the exploration of destiny vs. free will, as exemplified by the feather that floats freely, is captured and carried to new places in the Curious George book, and then floats free again. But that's not the point of this blog entry.
How did the mentally challenged Forrest achieve so much? Total concentration. If you notice in the scene where he first learns to play ping pong, the guy showing him says "The most important part of this game is to never take your eye off the ball". As soon as he says that, Forrest squints his eyes and starts concentrating hard on the ball, and starts hitting it. Of course, in the movie, he eventually becomes a celebrated table tennis player, going to China, meeting the president, etc. The events in the movie are highly improbable of course, but the writer had to come up with some talent that Forrest had that would enable all his amazing feats. And that was flow. I talk about flow in The Productive Programmer (in the Focus chapter) as defined by Michael Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state intimately familiar to all developers. It's that state of total concentration, where time disappears and you get your best work done. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi argues convincingly in his book that flow is the secret to a happy life: finding things that are challenging enough to engage your full concentration but not enough to be persistently frustrating. The ability to get to this state explains why so many developers love their career. Software development offers lots of opportunities to get to this state, offering puzzles that are always just within reach.
But flow doesn't come for free. It's a psychological state, meaning you can't just force yourself into it. My friend Brian Goetz has the best comparison I've heard: flow is like sleep. You can't force yourself to go to sleep, but you can set up the environment to make the state easier to achieve. That's one of the reasons people have so many rituals around bedtime. Flow is the same way. You can't force it, but you can set up the correct environment. Brian explained this to me in the context of interruptions. When he works at home and his family interrupts him, he's grumpy because they've broken his flow. But they don't understand: it's only a 5 minute disruption. But his killer analogy? What if someone awoke you 4 or 5 times a night for just 5 minutes at a time? You'd have a terrible night's sleep.
This matters a lot because perhaps the most hostile environment for flow is cube land. Putting developers (or any knowledge workers, for that matter) in a sea of cubes forces you to constantly deal with an environment that's hostile to getting to the state where you are most productive. Lots of developers have figured out how to survive (just like big city dwellers learn to sleep through noisy environments). One of my favorite lines from The Blues Brothers movie is when Jake comes "home" with Elwood, directly adjacent to an elevated train. Jake asks "How often do those trains run" to which Elwood answers "So often you won't even notice it!". How often do meetings happen in your office? So often you won't even notice that you only have about 2 hours a day to actually get work done. This is by the way one of the secrets to the effectiveness of pair programming. It is possible for 2 developers to get in flow at the same time. Because more than one person is working, external forces are less likely to disturb them, allowing them to stay in flow for long periods of time. This explains why, if you are new to pair programming, you are hammered after 8 hours of pairing: you've been in that deep concentration state for longer than what you are accustomed.
I talk about strategies for getting to and staying in flow in The Productive Programmer. That's the secret to real productivity when coding. Be like Forrest Gump: learn how to achieve that deep, deep concentration state in your environment (or, if you can't change your environment, change your environment). Code, Forrest, Code!