The Cost of Mistakes

I started reading through Paul Graham’s archives today. (It’s on the Automattic recommended reading list — yes we have a reading list, how cool is that?) I’m spending about 15 minutes every morning reading through it to start my day this year. Expect more random programming quotes from the past 20 years of programming and web development. Like this one!

This is just what the new model of programming does assume. Instead of hoping that people won’t make mistakes, it tries to make the cost of mistakes very low. The cost of a mistake is the time required to correct it. With powerful languages and good programming environments, this cost can be greatly reduced. Programming style can then depend less on planning and more on exploration.

That’s from the first chapter of ANSI Common Lisp by Paul Graham. Yes, really. Anyway, I think “the cost of a mistake is the time required to correct it” is a great aphorism but I think it’s corollary about planning and exploration is what really sticks for me. The idea that a project can depend less on planning and more on exploration when the cost of mistakes is reduced is really powerful. It’s something that I’ve slowly had to learn as a web worker. It didn’t feel natural to me as someone coming from the expensive “real” world of physical, printed design. The cost of mistakes is very high there. On the web? Not really. And you can take advantage of that in “exploration”.

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