Playing the Obstacle

When I was in acting school (yes, I was in acting school, see my bio) one of my teachers had an expression: playing the obstacle. When studying for a role, one of an actor’s most important jobs is to determine the character’s overall objective: What’s my motivation? The plot of any play or movie typically centers around how the character overcomes obstacles to achieve that objective.

What my teacher had noticed was a tendancy of young actors to focus too much on the obstacles themselves, attempting to build characters out of what they can’t do rather than what they want to do.

I think there’s a similar tendency in programmers. We start out with a clear objective, but when we encounter an obstacle to that objective we obsess over it. How many times has a programmer said, “I wanted to do X, but I couldn’t because Y got in the way,” followed by a 10-minute rant about how much language / framework / library / tool Y sucks? That’s playing the obstacle.

If you’re lucky enough to make software that real people (not programmers) actually use, then Y is irrelevant. No one cares how many ugly hacks you had to put in to make Y do something it wasn’t quite designed to do. All that matters is X.

One Reply to “Playing the Obstacle”

  1. I have slightly different take. I see a problem like this, obsess about it, grinding away at a barbaric hack to get around it. Usually, when I have to presence of mind to do so, a better solution is to step back and approach the wider goal in a different way, more in tune with the tools I’m using. The hard part, for me, is stopping churning out coding long enough to figure that out.

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