Coding like Gaston Lagaffe

My favourite comic hero is Gaston Lagaffe by André Franquin. The series ran from 1957 till the early eighties and has been re-issued to the present day.

At the fictional offices of the Dupuis publishing house Gaston’s job was responsible to sort the incoming mail, but instead he wreaked havoc with his irresponsible fascination for the applied sciences. Everything Gaston touched resulted in a hefty bill from the real professionals and often a quick trip to the emergency room for him and his colleagues. Gaston was impulsive, reckless, without care or a shred of actual know-how, and occasionally brilliant. Granted, he was also an animal lover and never meant any harm. He was drawn most to mechanics and electronics, but also concocted a soap that ate through six floors like the blood of the Alien.

Every day is Groundhog Day in Gaston’s universe, because even the most well meaning boss would have sent him out on his ear. So each gag we start afresh and Gaston is not allowed to grow up and learn from his mistakes. He tries his hand at software only once — the Commodore VIC-20 was barely invented — but we can imagine what the code would have looked like.

With software you can dabble all you like with impunity, not risking life and limb, using duct tape, unaware of performance, security or stability, and anyway not caring anyway even if you are aware. Sloppy and undocumented, raising a big middle finger at all those pesky bureaucratic ISO norms for maintainability. It works, doesn’t it? It’s tempting to code like Gaston, but being true professionals we would never do anthing like that, would we now?

Hardly any code that I wrote between 1999-2001 — when I first started programming for a living — has survived. Pity, as it would have been a rude awakening to have to admit to the obvious Gaston touch. I can only argue in my defence that all the young guns had a relaxed take on software quality in the days when they pronouned double-U double-U double-U dot in adds. I’m not claiming that all programmers start off like Gaston, but I do recognize it in myself. The hacker mentality slowly gives way to the notion that “if a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing well”. Gaston couldn’t care less. He’s got passion, but it’s the passion of wayward child. His stamina lasts a few sleepless night and then he gets tired of the idea. But building great software is a long-term effort, as Joel wrote fifteen years ago.

Creative, meticulous and brimming with energy: very few minds will tick all three boxes. Creative yet sloppy and lazy people have brilliant ideas with lousy execution. You can forbid them to touch code until they get organized, but then they are likely to throw in the towel and you are throwing out the baby with the bath water. So we should keep our internal Gaston and the real ones in our team on a short leash but cherish them as well. Reckless enthusiasm has enabled science to make strides. Louis Pasteur took incredible personal risks when experimenting with rabid dogs in search for a vaccine.

Having a fascination for your tools without knowing how to apply it to something useful yet: that’s a good motivation to start a career in software, not a rational weighing of costs and benefits. I once rationally decided to study economics in Maastricht and was back home eight months later.