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Monday, November 11, 2013

What Can Golf Teach Us About Programming?

Golf ball teed up with driver

Golf is a game of accuracy and patience. You start with a little ball slightly bigger than one and a half inches in diameter, and you have to sink that ball into a hole barely more than two and a half times its size that lies hundreds of yards away using only a set of clubs. The less strokes you can do it in, the better, and once you've done it, you get to do it all over again on the next hole. That sounds like an apt metaphor for software projects if there ever was one.

On a software project, you start out far from your goal, the finished product. You may not be able to see the goal when you start, but there are markers and flags along the way leading you in the right direction. Mistakes can send you off in the rough (or worse), and it takes extra time to get back on the right path. There are also plenty of obstacles, traps, and hazards to deal with. In golf, when you get into trouble, the best thing you can do is get back to the fairway. Taking risky shots from bad positions can make a bad situation much worse, and you may never recover, so get to safety first instead of trying to be a hero.

Another place to keep it calm and not try to be a hero is on the tee. We all love grabbing our big driver and taking a monster swing to crush that ball into oblivion, but we're more likely to put the ball much closer to the hole and on the fairway if we take a nice, smooth, easy swing. Have you ever noticed how professional golfer's swings look so effortless, yet they can hit the ball a country mile while maintaining accuracy? That ability comes from great technique and control, not from brute strength. When you try to kill the ball, you're only succeeding in killing your swing with a loss of control. The ball may very well go far ... into the woods. Save the monster swing for the driving range where you have the ability to experiment and hopefully gain some control over it with practice.

The same can be said for software projects. If you try to hammer out hundreds of lines of code in one shot, you may feel like you're making great progress, but you could end up far off course and no closer to your goal. Take it easy. Code a little, test a little. Talk to your customers frequently. Get some feedback so that you know when you're veering off into the trees and can make corrections early.

While you're making those corrections, you can think about your approach. In golf you start out with long shots that cover plenty of distance to the hole, but as you get closer, you use shorter clubs and the shots get shorter and more accurate. More than half of your shots in a game of golf will be taken on and around the green. That means that 90% of the distance to the hole is covered by half of your strokes, and the last 10% of the distance takes the other half. That characteristic should sound very familiar to software engineers, where projects are estimated to be 90% done when you're only halfway through the schedule. Amazingly, that last 10% takes the other half of the time.

Because of this 90/10 property, you can improve your golf game more dramatically by shaving strokes off of your chipping and putting game than you can by adding 50 yards to your drive. Being 100 yards from the green isn't that much better than being 150 yards from the green, but if you can easily sink 10-foot puts, you're going to have lots more opportunities for a lower score. Could the same be true in software projects? If you improve the testing, bug fixing, and tweaking that goes on before releasing a product, that could have as much if not more of an impact on schedule than improving on the initial prototyping and coding at the beginning of the project. Of course, like teeing off, initial prototyping is the fun part. Who wants to spend all of their time practicing putting, am I right? Well, the golfer that nails more puts generally wins more games.

Another aspect of golf is the wide variety of clubs at your disposal. Every club has a job that it performs best, and sometimes the choice of club can make or break a shot. The driver is made specifically for hitting long shots off of a tee. The woods are good for long shots off of the fairway, but don't work well in the rough. The irons can get the ball up and out of the rough better, but can't hit the ball as far as the woods. Hybrids attempt to combine the best parts of the woods and irons, but they have their own compromises. The wedges work well when you get closer to the green, and they can help get you out of bunkers and tight spots. The putter, of course, is the club of choice on the green.

To master the game, you have to become proficient in all of these clubs and know when to use each one. Likewise in software engineering, you will become a much more productive programmer if you learn more tools and learn them well. Every programming language, library, API, or utility is another club in your bag. Take the time to learn their strengths and weaknesses and in which situations to use them to the best advantage. No tool is perfect for every situation, and using them in the right context will make you much more effective as a programmer.

As you're trying to improve as a programmer, you can keep a golfing practice tip in mind. Consider how much there is to think about when trying to improve your golf swing. There's your posture, your grip, your stance, and your line-up to the target for starters. Then during the swing there's the backswing, the downswing, ball contact, and follow-through. The whole swing involves timing, tempo, and rhythm. And for heaven's sake, make sure you keep your head down and your eye on the ball while you make contact with the club face. There is no way that you can be thinking about all of those things during the two seconds that it takes to swing the club.

So don't. Focus on one thing at a time. During your swing, you should be thinking about only one aspect of your swing. If you try to practice even two things at once, you're going to do both of them badly, and you won't get anything out of your practice. If you stay focused and improve on one thing until it becomes second nature, then you won't have to think about it anymore, and you can move on to something else. The same strategy works well in software engineering. Pick one thing to learn and then learn it. Don't split your time and attention over too many things or you won't make progress on any of them. If you concentrate on one thing at a time, you'll learn it faster and actually make use of it more often because you'll know it better.

Here's one last thing that becomes painfully obvious in golf. No matter how good you are, there will be things about almost every shot that you wish you could have done better. Sure, there will be the occasional shot that feels and looks awesome, but it's those great shots that make you believe that you can do better on all of the others. You are not alone. I've read about professional golfers - golfers that have won Master's Tournaments - that say they think 80% of their shots are crap. They thought they could do better than they did on that many of their shots, and they are the best golfers in the world. I'm sure they practice every day to improve on those shots where they felt they came up short. Remember that - there's always room for improvement.