Programming

Intuitive versus Reasoning Programmers

During the last year I’ve been helping run a monthly series of dojos for the London Clojure User Group. In the course of it I have had the chance to watch a lot of people grapple with functional programming. As a result of this and also looking at the way a lot of my colleagues at ThoughtWorks work I think programmers can roughly be divided into two groups: Intuitive and Reasoning.

To characterise both of them a little, I think that Intuitive programmers tend to use domain language a lot, rely heavily on tests and TDD, often find it difficult to articulate what they are doing in their work, they like small source code files because they like to see everything a file does at a glance, they prefer outside-in problem solving and like the opportunity to go back and revise their work.

Reasoning programmers like to discuss a problem before coding and explore edge-cases and what-ifs, they like to work in the REPL or have in-editor code evaluation, they quickly move from a domain to an abstraction and then work in that abstraction, they don’t mind a thousand line source file as long as it is logically structured (that’s what the search function is there for), they prefer “bottom-up” coding where they distil their abstraction to its essence and having implemented that create the required behaviour by composing their abstractions.

Both sets of programmers can be great at their work but often if they are unaware of the characteristics of how they like to work then there can be massive amounts of tension as the two wrestle back and forth. The Intuitive developers feel angsty when the Reasoning programmers start hacking out code rather than refactoring, Reasoning developers get frustrated at the aimlessness and game playing of the Intuitive’s attempts to generate the minimum amount to make their tests pass.

Reasoning programmers probably feel that in terms of communicating they have the superior style as they are able to advance arguments and logical constructs that can be interrogated. Those articulated models though can feel arid and irrelevant to Intuitive programmers, what does some obscure mathematical formula have to do with trying to make sure the frog doesn’t get run over when it crosses the road?

Intuitive programmers seem to be better at switching contexts and adapting to change as they can quickly see the “outlines” of any problem and their techniques are about honing that initial perception into a functional solution. By contrast a Reasoning program is wary of uncertainty and is unhappy drawing unjustified analogies between different situations.

In FP terms Reasoning programmers have their behaviour emerge as a logical consequence of the operation of lower level abstractions; their code looks like algebra and domain data is passed in to the top of their processing chain. Intuitive programmers on the other hand, fix behaviour in their tests and fill their code with domain language that aims to match the natural language of the organisation, the depth of their function calls is usually smaller and they are swifter to bind calculations to intermediate variables.

I think I am an Intuitive programmer (and therefore I worry that I am miscasting Reasoning programmers through my lack of understanding) and in my work most of my colleagues are as well, it is in the nature of consultancy to have to adapt to constantly changing domains, code bases and expectations. We do have a few Reasoning programmers though who do exactly the same work but do it via thinking deeply through problems and drawing logical inferences.

If there are issues between the two groups then I think it occurs when there are no concessions between the two; common flashpoints being testing, writing defensive/guard code and giving time to discuss problems and problem solving strategies. The two also agree on a lot of things for very different reasons: for example both like to rewrite code, refactoring is a formalised practice for Intuitive developers whereas Reasoning developers often want to apply new insight or learned ideas (“This could all just be monads!”).

An important point is that neither approach is “right” both types of programmer arrive at the same results if their experience, ability and other factors are equal. They are purely styles of working.

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