Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Do you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk about your limitations, all the reasons you can't do this or wouldn't have time for that? Is your rant starting to sound more like schtick and less like well reasoned self-assessment?

Where does attribution fall? Your overbearing boss? Your dyslexic kids? Your partner whose spending is out of control? Are you overworked? Underpaid? Too tired? Too out-of-shape? Too anxious? Too depressed? Too concerned? To distraught?

What is it that stops you from doing what you would do were it not stopping you? What would you do if you had all the time in the world to do it?

The quest of many software developers is to work on a "greenfield" project. The phrase refers to a new project that is well funded with minimal limitations and constraints, one where the team can really stretch out creatively.

The term greenfield refers to the experience of an American-football player who carries the ball into a fray of blockers and would-be tacklers bracing himself to be smacked down at any moment. A hole opens. He runs through it and is confronted by nothing but yards and yards of green field, the goal posts of the end zone, and the rising roar of thousands of screaming fans.

There's no time to think. No consideration to be given... Nothing to hold him back... Nothing to stop him... Nothing, that is, but him.


For real software guys the chance to work on a fully-backed greenfield project is better than being employee number four at a start-up that just IPO'd. It's better than a promotion. It's better than a pay-raise or bonus. It's better than winning an award.

Assignment to a greenfield project is often provided as a reward for exceptional performance. Real software guys live to work on greenfield projects, to stretch out and show what they've got, to push the envelope of what is considered possible, to push themselves to new heights of skill and insight.

Boon or Bane
Despite all that, greenfield projects are the bane of many, I daresay most. No matter how much a developer complains about the things that limit her (poor funding, lousy tools, limited time, a terrible core design), she takes comfort in her constraints. As long as the constraints are there it's impossible to fail; there's always someone or something to blame, a way to explain how he could have done better if only...

Take away the constraints and rather than shooting down the yards of greenfield towards the goalposts, the would-be greenfielder freezes providing the defensive line more than ample time to realize every imagined smack-down and then some. Compared to the number of software developers who long for a greenfield project, the number of developers who thrive in one is, well... we're talking the low one-percents here.

This phenomenon is not limited to software developers. You see it in art, science, architecture, engineering, cooking, vacation planning. You name it, total freedom can be terrifying.


Really Creative
I think it comes down to two things: 1) a misunderstanding of creative process and 2) overconcern over blame, attribution and credit.

People think that creativity is about limitless expression of what lies at the core of each us or some such malarky. Outside the realm of fairytales, that's not what creativity is about. Creativity is the struggle that ensues when an artist is confronted by the constraints of his medium. Creativity's parents are not freedom and inspiration, they're limit and deadline. Understanding that limits and constraints are essential to the creative process can turn any number of "terrible" situations into ones that are more than tolerable; they become downright inspirational.

However, understanding creative process is not enough. If you're concerned about what people will think, or how well you'll do, or whether or not you're squandering the opportunity you're, well, screwed. Concern over success, failure, attribution, blame, or recognition will kill creativity faster than anything. All those great ideas you had while bound in the contraints of life vaporize leaving you with nothing but... well, nothing.

So what is it you want to do? What is it that's keeping you from doing it? How real are your limitations and constraints? How can you translate each limit into a seed of creation? What's holding you back? When are you going to change everything, without changing much of anything?

Happy Tuesday,

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