cogent free knowledge

Personal blog of Joel Clermont, a Milwaukee PHP, Ruby and .NET developer

Do Programmers Rely Too Heavily on Internet Resources?

Let’s face it: there is a lot to know as a programmer. There is the syntax of your preferred language(s), the syntax and function library of your database technology and you probably have some sort of framework or common library containing dozens, if not hundreds, of classes on top of that. This can be overwhelming at first, but most programmers recognize the folly in trying to memorize everything. The reality is you probably only need to commit a small percentage of that knowledge to memory. The rest can be assisted by your IDE, the documentation or an Internet search.

Lately, though, I’ve begun wondering if programmers might take this notion too far and rely too heavily on their “extended memory.” This thought occurred to me as I was browsing my Google search history. I saw a couple searches come up repeatedly every few weeks over the course of the last several months. Could it be possible that I was really searching time and time again for the same answer to the same question? It was a scary thought.

That evening was our monthly Milwaukee PHP user group meeting, so I decided to bring it up as a question during introductions. The consensus among the group was pretty much the same pattern I had recognized in my own search activity: people were relying very heavily on search engines in their day to day work.

So I decided to try an experiment: cut myself off from this extended brain; force myself to work without that safety net. Would I become helpless? While it was definitely a difficult adjustment at first, I quickly realized that by forcing myself to recall the answer to the question at hand, it became easier to recall each time. I realized that much of this information I was repeatedly searching for was really rattling around in my brain all along, but by reflexively “reaching” for Google, I wasn’t giving myself a fair chance to remember it on my own.

I came to the conclusion that just because we can’t memorize everything, doesn’t mean we should memorize nothing. In fact, I’d wager that many programmers have committed less than they should to memory if they want to work at peak efficiency.

The long term result of this experiment is that I am far more judicious in my use of the all-powerful search engine for my daily work. I haven’t cut myself off completely, but I am far more conscious of what things I’m searching for and how often I’m relying on the hive mind. Overall, I have no doubts that both my productivity and my confidence have increased dramatically. Give it a try yourself and you might be surprised at the results.

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