Why programmers love to climb

January, 2011

Why do programmers love to climb? Actually, I don’t think it is specifically constrained to programmers, but anyone in a math, science or engineering role. This is by no means a scientific survey but more just my personal observation of how a love for solving problems in the abstract relates to the skills and mentality required to love climbing rocks.

Rock climbing (and especially bouldering which is what I do the most of) involves solving problems and this, I think, is at the root of the correlation. You might think that at the end of a day of writing code, the last thing you’d want to be faced with is another set of problems to solve. But there is something very refreshing about the mental and physical challenges associated with climbing that compliment a day job lived in the abstract. The rock is real, the goal is fixed. You need a combination of mental awareness, physical strength, dexterity, technique and lots of plain old perseverance to get up a rock face. There is also a individual/collaborate dichotomy to climbing similar to the world of math, science, and programming. At the end of the day, it is you the individual that must solve the problem and climb the route. No one is there to help you and it comes down to how well you execute the sequence of movements required to accomplish the climb. However, in the background there is a constant community of collaboration going on. Beta is exchanged. Technique is discussed. Methods of training or recovery debated. Different movements are tried over and over again with subtle variation and the results are communicated to the group.

If you get your thumb fully engaged and pinch while you are crimping off the top of that left hand you can gain enough pull to make that high move. But you have to keep that right toe on or it is all over.

Beta often doesn’t work for everyone though. Height, ape index and a variety of other physical factors determine how you go about climbing a particular problem and in many cases a friend’s method will be of no help to you. One of my peers is tall enough that I almost always have to come up with a different set of beta for climbing the same problems because I just can’t reach the holds and keep my feet where he does. Another friend is so much stronger than I that he doesn’t worry about his feet too much and is very adept at jumping for holds and then catching and stabilizing his swing. I’m a much more cerebral and technique based climber. I’m not overly strong, so I rely on body position, using my feet, maximum efficiency of movement and subtle leverage points to get up the rock. One of things I’m trying to learn now as I have progressed to harder climbs is actually how to move very dynamically on the rock by jumping and pogo-ing to catch holds while using my core to contain swing and stay put after I come back in contact with the rock again.

As a developer moving from the abstract world of 1’s and 0’s to the physical world of rock, sweat and sometimes blood it seems there is endless entertainment in the realm of conquering boulders and cliffs. The same way I sometimes wake up in the morning with the solution to a programming challenge appearing in my head, I will often dream about a particular bouldering problem I’m working on. Or I’ll be driving to work, visualizing the movements in my head of a particularly hard climb, my hands sweating on the steering wheel. When I come back to that problem the next day things click that weren’t working the day before and I’ll find myself  sending what previously felt impossible.

I’ve taken a few of my fellow developers climbing and have been fascinated by the reaction to the sport. For someone who has never climbing before (and especially if they are particularly strong or adept at another sport) climbing for the first time can be a very frustrating activity. Traditional strength does you nothing in climbing until you learn how to use it. And often it is forearm and contact strength that matters way more than your ability to bench press. Your legs also matter much more than your arms do and some of the most common climbing advise heard is to climb with your legs, not your arms. One of these developers in particular impressed me. Not necessarily with his climbing ability, but with his persistence in solving the problems. I think he spent the entire night on a single bouldering problem. He worked every move. He listened intently to any guidance that I offered and then was back at it with renewed vigor. And by the end of the night he made it all the way up! What is really interesting is that over the years of working with this guy, I’ve noticed that this is the same way he tackles programming problems: with quiet persistence and a never die attitude. I learned it is equally important to check in on him and make sure he has what he needs to be productive or give some piece of guidance, but at the end of the day he delivers.

I think software engineering is much like this situation where you are constantly being thrown at problems that you don’t know enough about. You are continually learning new things and being asked to communicate where you are in solving the problem and when it will be done. You need a combination of a love for what you are doing, maybe some base talent, the ability to learn new skills on the fly, and a whole lot of persistence. Your attitude as you approach the inevitable road blocks and set backs matters more than anything else. That is why programmers love climbing. Because they thrive off those situations of solving hard problems, dealing with set backs and ultimately accomplishing great things. It isn’t burdensome to us, it is drives us forward and onto the next challenge. We thrive off it.

Tim's Avatar Building GitHub since 2011, programming language connoisseur, San Francisco resident, aspiring surfer, father of two, life partner to @ktkates—all words by Tim Clem.