Discipline: A Short Rant

People use the word "discipline" reasonably often when they talk about the software trade. I tend to avoid that word, and I wish more folks followed me in that policy.

Most of those folks are not meaning anything untoward. They might easily use "orderly", "consistent", "persistent", "systematic", and so on, instead of "discipline", and as I say, I wish they would.

"Discipline", in other parts of the forest, is an ordinary part of the vocabulary of extrinsic motivation by punishment that is a common element in command-and-control arrangements.

"Discipline", in that part of the forest, is also used as a verb. Its meaning is usually "punish" or "sanction", and pretty much always implies "coerce" and "control".

Meanings in one domain aren’t the same as in other domains, of course. But there is, I don’t know, "bleed-through". Words carried across domain lines, unless the domains are very significantly different and the words are very rigorously defined, carry powerful overtones.

As a programmer, I am pretty much "orderly", "rigorous", "systematic", "consistent", "persistent", and so on. I imagine that anyone who’s any good at programming is most of these things most of the time, too.

None of this involves those overtones of "punish", "coerce", "control", and so on. And far from being extrinsically motivated by pain, I am intrinsically motivated by the pleasure of being those things.

People who program computers for a living work every day at length with the most rigorous, systematic, consistent, persistent, orderly thing humans have ever devised: the computer.

If a person doesn’t like dealing with that kind of stuff, I find it hard to imagine they’re going to either like programming or be very good at it.

And you know what? That’s fine. That’s okay! That’s not a crisis or a problem or an issue.

What would be an issue: an organization that hires computer programmers who must then be coerced or controlled into being systematic, orderly, rigorous, consistent, and persistent.

I’ve seen such organizations.

They use the word "discipline" a lot.

That’s why I don’t.

Let’s change things!!

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1 thought on “Discipline: A Short Rant”

  1. It’s not often I disagree, but I think this might be one of those times. (and a good disagreement is always more fruitful than a violent agreement, right? 🙂

    i prefer the word discipline, and I think it’s the root of many of the problems I see with teams I support. You’re right that discipline can be used wrongly, but doesn’t that really apply to all words? isn’t it truly the mental models behind those words that is the crux of the issue? maybe it’s that there’s baggage attached to that word where i’ve attached something positive.

    i hope you don’t mind that i post a link to where i’ve written mostly the opposite. i’d love your thoughts. if that’s an imposition though, feel free to delete this comment (or maybe just this paragraph?).


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