Eight Foot High Corn Field

by breeve 14. December 2009 16:42

During my later college years in Utah, each year around Halloween people became enamored with corn mazes. The most popular time to go was at night and during one of those nights I found myself staring at a dark corn field entrance illuminated by flood lights.

To the scientific thinker a corn maze can be an incredibly frustrating experience. One must navigate through endless corridors to somehow arrive at the one opening on the far end. I didn’t have any strategy in mind–after all my wife told me this was supposed to be fun–so I went with the flow.

After some time in the maze, I was hopelessly lost and not having much fun. I was seeing the same people over and over again. I remembered hearing my dad say once that when lost in a maze just put your hand on a wall and follow it until you eventually arrive at the end. I followed that strategy for a time–not really thinking it through in my head to verify if it really works–until I got bored and did what every corn maze zealot would shrink with disdain at: I walked through the walls until I was outside the maze and made my way to the entrance lights.

Some years later I found myself in my first programming gig writing graphs, meters and knob components for scientific applications in .NET/C# and Windows Forms. My first assignment was to develop a program to benchmark how fast an early prototyped .NET graph would run. I took the assignment in stride–not knowing much about the .NET framework–and implemented an application that worked. My boss on the UI team, to which I belonged, sat down and had a code review with me. It was my first official code review and it didn‘t go well.

I was crushed. However, as the code review went on I began to see where I could improve. After all, I had never developed a professional application before and had honestly never seriously studied one. Most of my projects in school were little in scope designed to prove I knew how to create a linked list, code a quick sort, or create Huffman code trees. They were not designed to be extended or maintained by someone down the road.

In the months that followed, I worked double hard to prove I belonged. I studied the code base and learned all kinds of code patterns I didn’t know existed. Visitor, Observer, and other patterns–that oddly were never mentioned in school–that I would later read about in the famous Design Patterns book. Over time my code got better.

Which brings me back to the corn maze. Like someone navigating a corn maze, when you are starting out as a programmer you tend to make decisions one at a time without any greater context to guide you. Function A throws an exception so that means it must not work so use Function B instead. These decisions are made one by one, in isolation, until a program is assembled into some kind of greater whole that runs. A more senior programmer–who hopefully has the ability to look at the maze from high above–might wonder why you took the long route or worse never arrived at the finish.

If the goal is to become a more effective programmer by seeing the maze from above, how does one get there? Before we explore that goal, we should become comfortable with a sometimes not understood secret in the programming field. Not everyone with experience can see the corn maze from above. Some, try as they might, can never seem to get their heads above the corn. Others find they can get their heads a few feet above the maze which delights them to no end. Fewer still are able to successfully position themselves effectively over the maze.

To reach the programming pinnacle of understanding above the maze, you must position yourself in a work environment with others who are able to at least get a glimpse into the maze. Learn how they think, how they code, and why they make the decisions they do. As you progress in your career it will become vital to learn from those who possess greater powers of levitation. Finding these types are hard, but once you find one–like finding traces of gold–the chances of finding other high performers is high. Good programmers like to work with other good programmers and its in these pockets of intellect where you will make the greatest strides.



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About Me

I am a Principal Engineer with 13 years experience developing and releasing software products. I started developing in C/C++ then moved into .NET and C# and have tech lead multiple projects. I have developed products in Windows Forms, ASP.NET/MVC, Silverlight, and WPF. I currently reside in Austin, Texas.

Own Projects

Pickaxe - An easy to use web page scraper. If you know a little SQL and how basic CSS selectors work, no web scraping product will be easier to use.

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Created ASP.NET MVC forum originally targeting home owner associations but now in use by an investor group.


A language for querying PGATour golf strokes.


Real time bidder for car ads demo


Simple front end tic tac toe


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