Software Engineering Parables 1 : Feynman’s Biology Class

Dr. Richard Feynman c/o
Dr. Richard Feynman c/o

As software engineers we should always be on the lookout for lessons from other disciplines or from the past.  This industry is young, but also has amnesia.  Over the years I’ve clung to a few stories that resonated with me and formed my opinions on the art.  I’m going to share them in a series called Software Engineering Parables.

One book that is just chalk full of wisdom and can be a source of inspiration for anyone is the book “Surely You Must Be Joking Dr. Feynman”.  It’s an autobiography by the famous physicist Richard Feynman.  Feynman was a bit of a rebel genius who had a knack of seeing the same things as everyone else, but understanding them differently than the average Joe.

I believe the story goes that he was at Princeton, where he was studying physics.  Dr. Feynman had such a curiosity and love of learning that he would often sit-in on classes of different disciplines.  So, he picked up a class on Biology and would show up for lectures and follow along.  I don’t know if he was officially enrolled in the class (it wouldn’t surprise me if he wasn’t), but the story goes that eventually he decides to write a paper on Biology.  He feels like he has something to contribute to the field, so he gets to it and when he is done, since he has befriended some Biology majors while on campus, he decides to get one of them to proof read his paper.  The friend took it overnight then brought it back to Feynman telling him that his idea was fantastic but the paper is written all wrong, no one will take it seriously.  The friend offers to edit the paper for Feynman and to make it more inline with what is expected from a Biology paper.  Feynman agrees and in a couple of days the friend returns with the edited paper and hands it to him to read.  Feynman studied the new edited paper and he confessed that he didn’t understand it anymore, even though he was the originator of all the ideas and the original author of the paper.  The academic field of Biology expected a certain protocol on its papers, but since Feynman studied Physics he wasn’t privy.

There are so many lessons in this tiny story.  One might be that sometimes we are the authors of our own complexity.  It comes to mind today because I find that different companies have different forces at work that attribute to the level of pomp in communication.  In a startup with limited resources it is our goal to keep things simple and efficient.  At big companies, pomp is incentivized to prove your worth and intelligence.

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