Monday, April 27, 2009

Programmer's Psychosis

For your consideration:
Programmer's Psychosis: an informal hypothesis

Everyone has heard or experienced these stories: programmers who stay at horrible jobs with abusive working conditions for months, even years longer than necessary. Eventually, many will quit, but only after painfully stressing and doubting the decision to leave.

A particular former colleague of mine has two children under the age of 6. He has worked more than 240 hours each month for the past year. His work has affected his marriage, his relationship with his kids, and his health. Yet he can't quit. Another friend stayed at a job he hated for more than a year before finally quitting. This was only after hours of conversation, the support of every friend he had, and enough IRC chat, griping about his working conditions, to publish a decology.

The only reason these poor bastards could give for why they stayed were:

1. I feel like I am letting the company down

2. I feel like I am letting my coworkers down

3. I feel like I am letting the project down

Or some variation on that sad theme.

This phenomena is well documented anecdotally in programmer culture, but it has no name, and little explanation. Based on my own experiences as a programmer, and the experiences of friends and colleagues, I have an informal hypothesis to propose.

Programmer's Psychosis, the undiagnosed mental illness of computer programmers.

I "blurted" out the term while chatting with the aforementioned friend, after he gave reasons number 2 and 3. But upon some investigation, it seems to fit perfectly.

A psychosis, as defined by Collins Essential English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, is:

"a severe mental disorder in which the sufferer's contact with reality becomes highly distorted."

The definitions of online dictionaries all define Psychosis as describing a loss of contact with reality, and distorted thinking.

What could be more distorted than the belief that quitting a company where you are ill treated is your failure. If an organization has let you down so completely, if your company has misused you so badly, that you feel the need to quit, to leave and never come back, how is that your failure?! If people are quitting, that indicates a failure on the part of the company. It is they that have failed you, and by extension your coworkers, by creating an environment that you found untenable.

I propose that belief to the contrary indicates a fundamental impairment of thinking, and a loss of contact with reality, and therefor, merits the term psychosis.

Programmer's Psychosis should be undertaken as a scientific study by mental health care professionals to determine its validity as a psychiatric diagnosis.