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Skiing Can Teach Us A Few Things About Programming

Alpine skier

A couple weeks ago, I described a skiing exercise as an example of how, in many sports, practice is intentionally made harder to make playing the real sport easier, and that the same principle can be applied when practicing programming. It turns out there are a few more things programmers can learn from the thrilling sport of alpine skiing.

Plan, Then Execute


When you're out skiing, there's a lot of planning that happens before and during each run. It all starts with deciding how you'll get up the mountain when you're down at the bottom, snapping into your bindings. Whether you're with a group or on your own, you'll need to decide which run you want to try out, and which lift will get you to the desired run with the least amount of skating across flat open snow. Depending on how far away it is, the best way may actually involve going down one or more different runs to get to the one you really want to do. And if you are with a group, you'll have to take everyone's wishes and abilities into consideration and make compromises as well.

Once you're on the lift, you may pull out the resort map again and try to figure out how you want to attack the run, or if you've been down it a few times already, you may be thinking about how you want to do things differently this time. The same run can feel entirely different each time you go down, depending on the path you take.

When you arrive at the top, narrowly avoid those people that congregate near the lift exit, and take a moment's pause on the crest of the run, you'll want to take a survey of the slope below. You'll be deciding on your initial path, looking for obstacles you want to avoid (or pursue if you want to challenge yourself), and waiting for any other skiers to go far enough down the run so that no one gets clobbered.

Once everything's clear, you can push off and carve your way down the mountain. However, the planning doesn't stop here. You need to be constantly looking out for new obstacles and making minor course corrections all the way down the run. You may stop and reassess your path at times if there's a blind spot created by a large ridge or if something entirely unexpected happens, like someone being loaded on a stretcher by the ski patrol up ahead.

Your path down a ski run is the combination of a general plan of attack and a series of dynamic decisions that take the current conditions into account. You may reach your destination by an indirect route, but being flexible is crucial to having a safe and enjoyable trip. This method of planning and execution applies equally well to programming, both at the project level where it should sound quite similar to agile methodologies, and at the coding level where you have to understand the code you're changing and adapt to new information as you're making changes.

Pick The Right Skis


There are all kinds of different skis out there, and they all have different strengths and weaknesses. Powder skis are much wider than other skis so that they will float on top of deep, fluffy snow instead of diving into it and burying you. Trick skis are much shorter and may have tips that curve up on both ends so you can go backwards as easily as forwards. As the name implies, these skis are built for playing in half pipes and terrain parks, and it's much easier to pull of flips, spins, and grinds with them.

Hyperbolic skis are made to carve turns easily in a wide range of conditions and are highly recommended for beginners for their easy learning curve, yet they're still fun for advanced skiers. The classic all-mountain ski is still the best choice for moguls because they are narrower than hyperbolics, making it easier to switch edges quickly and make incredibly fast turns, a requirement for attacking the bumps. Finally, super side-cut skis are a hybrid between hyperbolics and all-mountain skis. They make some compromises in either direction so they tend to be good in more situations, but not the best in any one situation.

Given that there are so many types of skis, you will want to pick the best one for the type of skiing you want to do. For example, if you want to try out the bumps and all you have is a pair of powder skis, you're not going to have a good time of it. Of course, these types of decisions come up in programming all the time, and the most obvious analogue for skis would be programing languages. If you pick the right language for the job and you know how to use it well, you're going to have a much easier time than if you only know one language and try to use it for everything. Being well-versed in multiple languages makes you a much more versatile programmer.

Be Aware Of Conditions


When you're out on the mountain cutting up the runs, the last thing you want is to be caught by surprise by unexpected conditions. At best, they could make your day rather uncomfortable. If you're more unlucky, poorly handled surprises could land you in the hospital, or worse. Conditions include the weather expected for the day, the type of snow on the slopes, and the actual obstacles and people around you while you're going down a run.

You should be aware of all of these conditions because they're important for your safety and comfort. Skiing in sunshine is much different than skiing in a (light) snowstorm, and skiing in a blizzard is ill-advised. Temperatures and wind speed will drastically change what you'll want to wear, and dressing in layers is always recommended because you'll be warmer or colder at various points of the day, depending on the immediate weather and your activity level. If you're wearing lots of layers, you can adjust so that you're not sweating or freezing.

The properties of the snow can vary tremendously as well. Fresh powder is great, but if it's deep enough, you'll need those powder skis to enjoy it at all. Wisconsin hard-pack is a combination of man-made snow and excessive grooming, and hyperbolic skis tend to work well in it. You should take extra care when skiing in soft, wet snow because you can hit patches of slush that will grab your skis and send you tumbling down the run. And then there's ice. Make sure your edges are sharp, and good luck!

Most of the time skiing is really not as hazardous as I'm making it out to be here, but it's still important to stay aware of what's happening because accidents happen when you least expect it. The same holds true in programming, with the conditions being anything from the OS environment to the current program state, and accidents taking the form of bugs. The more aware you are of all of the conditions in play for the code changes you're making, the more likely you'll be able to recognize, avoid, and fix bugs in your code. Over time, experience will teach you what conditions matter in any given situation, and you'll be better able to handle all of those nasty coding surprises.

Find The Zone


After all of the planning and adjusting for conditions becomes second nature and you really get comfortable with your skis, you'll find that your enjoyment of the sport reaches to new heights. Your skis become an extension of yourself, and you can anticipate your next turns with complete fluidity and purpose. Being in the zone can be both a serene and thrilling experience. The feeling that comes from conquering the mountain with grace and control is exhilarating. To me, that is what skiing, and programming, is all about - mastering the tools and yourself to surpass your limits and accomplish feats you never thought possible.