The what-if brain: Social pariah for developers?

As developers and analysts, we spend a lot of time asking “what if?”.

What if the user enters too many characters into this data entry field?

What if the network hiccups during a database save?

What if users are allowed to delete the record for this consecutively numbered item and then another user worries about a missing item #?

The longer we have been coding or working with domain owners to plan software, the more problems we can anticipate and ask “what if” about. It’s a good thing.

But this “talent” has had an adverse impact on my personal life. I can’t turn off the “what-if” brain.

What if I gain too much speed on this icy ski slope and can’t stop and … and … . (This one freezes me at the top of the slope while my friends stand waiting for me lower down wondering WTF is wrong with me.)

What if the dog sees someone across the road and runs to greet them and there’s a car coming up the road but they don’t see him heading down the driveway? (Been there, done that. I watched one of my dogs get hit and killed by a car years ago.)

What if we did something wrong with the woodstove before we left the house?

What if I order this menu item but change my mind by the time it arrives at the table?

Most of the people in my life who aren’t part of my developer-friends circle just don’t understand this.

My husband just thinks I’m a ridiculous worrier.

I’m afraid that my friend’s children will learn to be afraid of more things because of me.

My neighbors think I’m a complete lunatic about Sampson or any of their dogs in the road.

I don’t have an answer for this. I’m not about to let my guard down in my software development or in my life. But I do tend to explain my little problem as a job hazard– that I just can’t turn off the “what-if” brain just because I’m not in front of the computer.


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15 thoughts on “The what-if brain: Social pariah for developers?

  1. I love this post. For years I’ve thought of myself as a chronic worrier, afraid of all the things that "could" happen. It is a relief to realize it is really just an occupational hazard rather than a mental condition. 🙂

  2. As a motorcycle instructor, we teach new riders to play this "What-if" game all the time when they are riding. "What if that car in the opposite lane swerves to the left?" "What if that pedestrian over there unexpectedly steps off the curb?" "What if this semi throws a retread at me on the interstate?" Aggressively scanning your environment and evaluating the possible risks, then placing yourself in such a way to minimize those risks, isn’t just a smart way to ride, it’s a smart way to live, too.

  3. Maybe it’s the other way around. What if… it is your tendency to ask what if that led you to software development in the first place?

  4. Yup, me too. With everything. And from being so analytical I can almost predict what people around the house will do, which they all hate of course, especially the kids. We are so misunderstood.

  5. I completely agree! I have had to train myself to "shut the hell up & deal with it", otherwise I would never let my kids do anything remotely hazardous (baseball, play on a jungle-gym, cross the street). It has been a helluva struggle, but I *think* I am finally beginning to make progress.

  6. Never thought about this before. But you’re quite right. I’ll try to stop thinking about consequences any action could have a bit more. Thanks for your post.

    Don’t worry, be happy :-))

  7. Do you believe that software development did transform you in a "what-if" person?

    Trust me, although I’m speaking for myself, I had already before a "what-if" mind, that’s why I was attracted by software development…

  8. @Paul: Yes, I do. I was a much lazier developer long ago (and a much bigger risk-taker in life) and have gotten more anal about trying to think of (and then pursuing) everything that might go wrong in apps I am developing.

  9. Not worrying about these things doesn’t mean not doing them – I treat this tendency to worry as mild OCD, and have found some CBT ‘tricks’ to combat it. I can still be thorough and alert to danger/problems without being a worrier.

    I use a mental image of a checklist – putting ‘turn off stove’ on it, and then a big visual tick next to the words as I leave the kitchen helps that thought to stay out of my head for the rest of the day.

    There’s a phenomenon with memories disappearing as you change rooms – I use this to my advantage by bringing up the list as I leave a room. The act of visualising it completed helps me forget it, and doing this as I leave a room uses this phenomenon to my advantage – it just wipes it out completely, no more ‘just nipping back to check’ 🙂

  10. I’ve found one of my problems with this kind of thinking is a tendency to "short-circuit" the "what if" as soon as I can imagine a path with a negative outcome. I try to force myself to look at that as a challenge. Where is the solution to he problem? It’s hard though.

  11. I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. There is a HUGE difference between "Paralysis by Analysis" and thinking through options during software development. Just because both start with the words "What if..?" does not make them the same.

    If your "What if" questions are interfering with your life or the lives of others, yes, you are an obsessive worrier.

  12. I gave up being a programme director because of my "over analytical" outlook – I found it more stressful running a successful programme than a failing one because I was always looking for the reasons why it would go wrong !

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