Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 12/82 item 01 - scanned

MICROS CAN BE HABIT FORMING (column)

Have you ever met an obsessive programmer? If you're in the computer industry, you can hardly miss them. They spend so much time at the keyboard, they're sometimes referred to as 'terminal junkies'. The description is a light-hearted one, but the truth is a little less palatable.

I don't have masses of statistics to support this, but I think that the computing business produces more than its fair share of mental casualties. I have been involved with programming and other computer activities for around 17 years and, during that time, I have seen several people crack up under the strain. Like most of us, I have conveniently pushed such things to the back of my mind but, now that so many people are coming into computing, I feel the subject deserves an airing. In this way we may be able to save some of our colleagues - and ourselves perhaps - from an unplanned stay in a mental hospital.

Amateur Psychology

Programmers who work nine to five and then go off to the pub have probably got very little to worry about. Even if they're conscientious workers during the day, they're obviously not going to let the current project get in the way of the important things in life.

No, the people who are at risk are those who take their deadlines very seriously and take an almost too responsible attitude to work. Sadly, these are the very qualities that most managers desire in their staff. So enthralled are the bosses at people working long hours to meet targets, they tend to forget that programmers have some sort of life outside work and that perhaps they should be forced to stop work early from time to time to go out and enjoy themselves and make some human contact.

Unfortunately, these types of programmers usually get intense intellectual satisfaction from their work, and so have almost no motivation to leave it. If they are dragged down to the pub, they will simply sit there in a trance, trying mentally to trace their latest bug. They will almost certainly have a model of the program in their short-term memory and daren't talk seriously to anyone for risk of losing it and having to spend an hour or two picking up the threads during the next session.

Most programmers I talked to say that their programming speed picks up the longer they spend at the machine. One claimed that by mid-evening he can be belting along at ten times normal speed. And then, when they go home to bed, many of them dream that they are the computer or the program and often wake up in the morning with a clear vision of where to find yesterday's elusive bug.

None of this is too alarming and it certainly doesn't mean that they're going round the bend, although they could be heading in that direction.

If the behaviour becomes more bizarre, then the programmer is at risk. They work even more hours, usually 24 hours a day apart from catnaps on and off through the night. They become obsessive and antisocial, rejecting everyone and everything that is not part of the project. They will start neglecting themselves, often by completely forgetting to eat. Their 'I am a computer' fantasies may start to intrude on their waking time and at this point they are usually aware that something is wrong, but don't know what to do about it. The program has become their life, the deadline all-important and they cannot see any sensible way out of the loop. If rescued at this point, a few weeks holiday is probably all that's needed to put them back on their feet. If left alone, the only thing that can rescue them is if the project is completed or abandoned.

When people drive themselves at this sort of pace, they are' probably quite incapable of handling any additional external pressure without it accelerating their own demise. Family problems, sometimes brought about by their eccentric behaviour, are quite often the final straw for such people.

Some programs are so complex that the brain cannot hold all the relevant details at once. Under these circumstances it is very easy to go round and round in circles. Since the project needs to be completed there seems to be no way out and the programmer enters a downward spiral of despair.

Abnormal behaviour.

What happens next must depend on the individual but I do know of two cases where they ended up having conversations with the radio or television. One told me that every broadcast seemed to be aimed directly at him and no matter which may he turned, he was always the centre of attention.

No doubt different people will react in different ways, but their behaviour will be measurably abnormal and, if things reach this stage, professional help will be long overdue.

The people I know who went to mental hospitals came out after a few months of doing nothing and, as far as I know, are wiser but none the worse for the experience. At first they said they were very happy doing nothing but then they started to get bored. At this point they were on the mend and they are now both back in the industry but taking things a little less seriously than before.

As I said earlier, that is a composite description of the sort of path a programmer may take to a nervous breakdown. The first critical point is when they start to neglect themselves and work literally all hours. The second is when their brain goes into a loop from which it is difficult to escape. Anything could happen next, but behaviour will become measurably abnormal.

Anyone responsible for programmers should encourage their confidence, listen to what they have to say and act if there is any sign of an impending problem. The action could be to stretch the deadline, to give the programmer a break, to cancel the project or perhaps to get someone else involved.