Where the Sidewalk Ends

Software developers work on the border between problems that have already been solved and the uncharted wilderness of possibility.

yellow pavement ends road sign under blue sky

In my work as a software developer, I solve problems. Specifically, I tend to solve problems that require me to write code that interacts with other systems, frameworks, APIs, etc., extending them to do things that they were never designed to do. Some of those systems are designed to be extensible, others… less so. And it’s typically in those hard-to-implement edge cases that my skills are most called upon.

I work on the border between problems that have already been solved and the uncharted wilderness of possibility. Living in this rustic environment, I spend most of my day staring at flaws and limitations. If only this system exposed the data I need; if only that API didn’t have a jarring inconsistency; if only I could trust the value returned by this method call. But these things exist as they are, and it’s my job to find ways around them. Despite some internal grumbling, it’s usually quite enjoyable work.

Many of the products and platforms I’m trying to extend were designed with particular audiences in mind. Customers in the target audience have common problems that can be solved with common solutions. The problems I’m trying to solve… these are not the common case. When a product successfully anticipates the needs of a customer, when it solves the customer’s problem with minimal effort, when it’s exactly the right tool for the right job… I never see these projects. They’re someone else’s responsibility, because they don’t require my particular skills.

As I poke and prod at these systems, as I uncover the edge cases that push them to their limits, I need to remind myself that my challenges and my frustrations are not indicative of the quality of the product. A product that solves most of a problem for some percentage of its audience (whether that be 95% or 5%) is to be applauded. It’s doing its job well for those users. Even if it’s not for everyone, even if it doesn’t solve every problem, for some users, this is just the solution they need. For everyone else… it’s a big world; there’s room for another product in the market.

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