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Tim Kaetzel for DealerOn Dev

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Purpose in Painful Engineering

Software engineering and pain go side by side like two peas in a pod. Nonetheless, we continue to see more and more widespread interest and passion in the field. Is this purely masochism, or something deeper? In Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, he writes that the meaning of life is to find purpose in your suffering. Our line of work certainly can provide suffering, whether it's due to a painful bug, or a tight deadline, or complexities in process - so, how can we find more purpose in it?


Finding Purpose in Painful Debugging

Most of us have a similar story to tell of how we first experienced purpose in suffering within coding. We've all had the experience of banging our head against the wall trying to debug a particularly convoluted issue, likely over a much longer than ideal course of time, until it clicks. Most of us don't particularly directly enjoy muttering obscenities at our computer screens. That being said, once you get the satisfaction of the end result, the preceding suffering is given purpose. This connection to purpose fuels our efforts the next time we find ourselves at that wall.

Finding Purpose in Solving Pain for Others

We can find purpose not only in the process, but the product itself. Our code is ultimately used by or for someone. Considerations for the end user's experience directly impact people's lives, both on roll-out and consequent iterative improvement. If developers can empathize with the user based on their own pains of being a user, then they can connect meaning with their own experiences and apply that to their work. This ultimately benefits you as a developer, the product, and the end user.

Finding Purpose in Growth Caused by Pain

Our brain works hard to keep us safe from pain. If you put your hand on a hot stove, it is guaranteed that your brain is going to do its best to keep you from touching that stove again - the hotter the stove, the stronger the aversion. This can drive us to grow in preventing ourselves from making the same mistakes twice (I'm looking at you, uncaught exceptions), to help others grow by learning from your own painful lessons, and to push for bigger picture systemic changes.


As individual contributors, we have to work toward connecting our suffering to a sense of purpose, which may not come easily or be readily apparent. As leadership, we should actively reinforce and create a culture of finding purpose in our work. There are plenty of jobs in software engineering with low stress and low pressure to perform. Yet many of us seek the additional challenges of demanding jobs nonetheless. As long as we are able to balance suffering with purpose, and our personal limits with our demands, then we can all find purpose in what we're doing. Not everyone is going to work for a software company whose product is saving the world. Yet we can find purpose in the work we're doing within ourselves, within our teams, within the process along the way, and within the people using our products.

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