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PPSD: The Attaboy

“The better you feel about yourself, the less you feel the need to show off.”
― Robert Hand

In his famous book, Code Complete, Steve McConnell tells the story of a maintenance programmer who was called out of bed one night to fix a critical bug. The original author had long left the company and the poor maintenance programmer had never worked on the program before. There were no comments in the code, except six letters on a line of assembly code:

After working with the program through the night and puzzling over the comments, the programmer made a successful patch and went home to get some sleep. Months later, he met the program’s original author at a conference. “What does the comment R. I. P. L. V. B. stand for?” he asked, to which the original author replied: “‘Rest in peace, Ludwig van Beethoven.’ Beethoven died in 1827 (decimal), which is 723 (hexadecimal).”

Ladies and Gentlemen, such conduct is the mark of an Attaboy!

An Attaboy is a developer who craves admiration for being smart. To satisfy his needs, he regularly pulls coding stunts that get him the attention of his coworkers. Attaboys usually follow this pattern:

1. Bury an outlandish “nugget” in the code base.
2. Patiently wait until it’s discovered by an unsuspecting victim.
3. When the horrified victim demands answers, smugly explain.
4. Watch the victim’s jaw drop.
5. Savor the attention.

Many years back, I was a victim of an Attaboy myself, even though I hadn’t coined the term yet. I was reviewing a coworker’s code when a gut feeling told me that something wasn’t quite right. At first, I couldn’t really explain it, but then, all of a sudden, I knew: there was something weird about his zeros: Whenever he needed a decimal 0, he put the letter ‘O’ instead, as in

instead of

Since code like this wouldn’t normally compile, I suspected that he had defined a preprocessor macro somewhere like this:

but a regex grep across the code base didn’t yield any matches.

Finally, it dawned on me: he must have done it in the Makefile and so it was: he predefined O through a command-line argument to the compiler, like the following:

Arrgh! Even though this explains why his code compiled, it didn’t explain why he did something insane like this in the first place. It was time to confront this schmuck! But little did I know that this was all part of a carefully premeditated game.

“Well,” he said, with a smirk on his face, “our coding standard says, we’re not allowed to use octal constants. According to the C programming language, any number starting with a zero is an octal constant, so 0 is by definition also an octal constant, which according to our coding standard we shouldn’t use.”

Touché!

The proper way to handle this, of course, would have been to ask our software architect to make a tiny adjustment to our coding standard. Not so for the Attaboy who saw this as a unique opportunity to show off.

APPEARANCE

Attaboys are usually fresh out of college and lack professional experience. The ones that I’ve met looked like stereotypical nerds, but I don’t think that you can generally discern them by their looks or the way they dress. Attaboys are all about their wits.

PERSONALITY TRAITS

Attaboys are not just ordinary pranksters—they desire praise and validation and pranks are just a means to attain it. However, contrary to pathological cases of attention-seeking personality disorders, their behavior is transitory and not rooted in either getting too much or too little attention from their parents during childhood.

Instead of getting praise from their colleagues for their outstanding “achievements,” Attaboys are often confronted with despise and in rare cases even hostility. While such negative attention is far from ideal for Attaboys, it’s nevertheless proof of their intellectual prowess. And like every aging actress knows: any attention is better than being ignored.

These antics notwithstanding, most of the time, Attaboys are usually productive, write decent code, and get along well with others.

RATING

According to the Q²S² framework, an Attaboy’s rating is 4/4/3/3.

TOOLING

Since tools can also be a means of getting attention, tools play a significant role in Attaboys’ lives. They prefer tools, techniques, and programming languages that are considered unusual by their teammates. This is of course dependent on the context: in an environment, where everyone uses Visual Studio to write their code, an Attaboy might use Vi or Emacs as an editor. In C++ projects, Attaboys make lots of use of C++ template meta-programming, yielding code that is illegible to almost everyone, often including themselves. Or, they use programming languages that are illegible by design, like Brainfuck. Highly readable mainstream languages like Python are only used if absolutely necessary but even then, Attaboys find rarely used or recently added features that baffle peers.

Regarding the selection of tools, an Attaboy is almost indistinguishable from a Programming Hipster. But while a Programming Hipster’s main motivation is being different, an Attaboy’s main motivation is being admired.

CONCLUSION

Attaboys are tech-savvy rookies that are still wet behind the ears. Despite being occasionally a nuisance, Attaboys are not much of a problem. On the contrary, their productivity is above average, and they definitely care about their craft. Sometimes, you can even learn something from an Attaboy’s highbrow pranks—even if it’s just the day of death of a German composer, or that zero is an octal constant. While most would refer to an Attaboy as a smartass, I would like to add that an Attaboy is a benign smartass. Actually, I tend to think of an Attaboy as a diamond in the rough. Over time, the attention-seeking behavior will disappear and what’s left over will be a rock-solid developer.