Zen Programming: The Path Of Ruin


Today I was working on the “The Zen Programmer” book. While writing about the reasons we should practice Zen Programming, I remembered something one of the CEOs of a pretty big company said to his employees. It translates best to something like:”You must stay longer because I want to see the feature tomorrow morning. Well, s*** flows down the river - now it’s your problem to get it done”. After that he turned away and went of the scenery. Behind him were the people who should implement the new stuff, unable to respond. In their imagination the Boss goes home for a nice dinner with his wife while they had a long, long night. As a contractor I stayed with them and helped. Therefore I knew that the frustration level was way too high for that task.

The Path Of Ruin

I tell this story from time to time because it does show how The Boss influences the people around him. And these people do of course influence others, and these even more people. I created a graphic which illustrates how anger finds its path through the hierarchy. If you look closely, you’ll find “family” on the very bottom. They are on the same hierarchy as the cleaning lady or the intern. The people in the darkest area do share one thing in common: they mostly cannot defend against the problems The Boss causes. You probably go home after a long, hard day and your kids are too loud, your husband/wife stresses you because some bill which need to be paid and your mind is full with the things which has been said at work. When you explode, your work has caused harm to your family - because it is pretty normal that kids are loud and your husband/wife takes care that bills are paid. You were just not able to free your mind.

A Zen Programmer should try to put an end to the “Path of Ruin”. Whatever happens to you, stop the flow when it reaches you. Don’t shout at the intern for trivial things just because somebody else didn’t treat you well. Don’t go home and shout at your husband/wife just because she requires attention while you work on strategies to defeat your boss.

Sun Tsu and the General

Sun Tsu was a chinese philosopher and general who lived around 500 BC. He wrote a book with the title “The Art Of War”. This book is not really Zen related. But with a little creativity you can easily identify a connection to Zen, especially when it comes to respect or how to treat others. I want to refer to this book because it has a good story to tell which you can read yourself now:

During the Warring States era, when the Wei general Wu Qi was military governor of West river, he wore the same clothes and ate the same food as the lowest of his soldiers. He did no use a mat to sit on, and he did not ride when traveling. He personally carried his own bundle of provisions and shared the toil and hardships of the soldiers. Once, when one of the soldiers was suffering from a festering wound on his arm, the general himself sucked out the pus. When that soldier’s mother heard about this, she began to mourn. Someone said to her,”Your son is a soldier, yet the general himself sucked the pus from his wound - what is ther to mourn about?” The woman said, “Last year General Wu did the same thing for my husband, and as a result my husband fought in battle without taking a backward step, finally dying at the hands of an enemy. Now that the general has treated my son in this way too, I have no idea where he will die. This is why I mourn him.”

(excerpt has been taken from the book: The Art Of War: Complete Text and Commentaries, Shambhala Publications Inc, translated by Thomas Clearly. This issue is well translated, but pretty expensive compared to the issues I linked at the end of this post)

Sun Tsu and one of the six mistakes

Sun Tsu, Source: Wikipedia.org

Image Source: Wikipedia.org

Clearly my customer did not read Sun Tsu. Otherwise he would had bought Pizza and would have stayed with his personel (or thought twice before he commanded the nightshift).

Sun Tsu describes six mistakes generals can do which cause big trouble for their army. In the case above The Boss was probably angry and did not act in awareness. He spoke way to much and the wrong things. Please see the original Zen Programmer post for some comments on that.

When The Boss (the general) spoke so unwise to his team leaders (the officers) he has sent anger down the hierarchy. Officers who become angry probably act with a bad timing or do the wrong things. Maybe they deploy a bugfix without testing it properly or cause an outage without caring about the current users. The anger goes down to the programmers and so on - and the result is what Sun Tsu called “Ruin”.

When we act mindful and with awareness, we can stop the anger walking down the whole path. Stopping the wave of anger when it reaches us is the best we can do for our families and everybody else who interact with us. Instead of passing it along we need to look at what happened and decide on the right action (more on the Right Action will be explained in the book). Of course, situations are not always easy. In this case, it is not easy to speak up against a dominant person who is able to put so much pressure on you. In this case “accepting the things as they are” might be the only solution.

Want to read more from Sun Tsu?

Sun Tsu is much recommended if you want to learn about strategic actions. Managers read his book and I enjoyed it as software developer and team leader. His work is available in many languages and is not too expensive. If you would like to read more, I recommend you this german version or that english issue.

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