Brains, Fingers, and Crabs — Modes of Software Developer Operation

May 05, 2024

In the late 2000s, some friends and I started a small software development agency. It didn’t last very long because we were more interested in building things than making money, but it was quite a fun time.

I can’t remember exactly how this came up, and the details are a bit fuzzy almost 20 years later, but at one point we came up with a list of modes or states that we might be might be in while working. My best recollection is that this was prompted by the sensitivity to interruption which came with each mode. We worked together in a small office, and sometimes “work” was a strong word for what we were up to. If one of us was trying to focus, it was good to have a shorthand for this.

We came up with three main modes of operation: Brain Hats, Monkey Fingers, and Crab Claws (or alternatively, Crab Hands).

Brain Hats

This was the mode requiring the most concentration and focus. Often this was when someone was working on a tricky piece of code or some difficult research work. It could also be when someone needed to buckle down and get a task done or otherwise needed to focus. If someone was in Brain Hats mode, the office should be quiet.

Monkey Fingers

The idea with this mode was that we were waggling our primate hand-digits against the keyboard. Real work was getting done, but it didn’t require as much attention. Interruptions were fine and maybe even welcome. Many types of writing, research, and a good chunk of development work fit into this mode. It was the normal state of operation most of the time.

Crab Claws

Imagine miming crab claws with your hands. Now imagine closing each claw and randomly mashing the keyboard. That’s about how effective you were in this mode. I often entered this state after a long client meeting or if I was banging my head against a tough problem for too long. I found going for a walk would sometimes help to get out of this state. If a couple of us were feeling this way, we might head out for a coffee1 or play some games for a bit.

I don’t think there’s anything that novel here, but it was a helpful shorthand. It’s still something I reach for as a model when planning out work.

  1. We had a great indie coffee shop just across the street. I referred to this as “going for a fancy coffee” to differentiate it from the terrible instant coffee we had in the office.