How Much "Magic" Are We Comfortable With?

Our Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) build system (that we recently implemented) is truly a joy to behold, but it's also basically magic from my perspective. Check some code in, wait a few minutes, something happens, and then BOOM it's on the dev server. I know that it works, but I don't know exactly how. Should I take the time and effort to find out?

I'm a completionist, which means I'm also a naturally inquisitive person. I want to understand how things work, how they interact. I recognize that I cannot possibly understand everything, but I want to. It's a little internal conflict that rears up whenever I am presented with what seems, to me, to be magic.

A poster for a magic show by Zan Zig, showing him holding a rabbit

My family and I love going to Disneyland, (seeing as how we're really not that far from it) and at that resort there is a particular ride that's now known as Soarin Around the World. This ride lifts passengers up into a hang-gliding type adventure, using a giant video screen and huge mechanical rows of seats to simulate flight. And the first time I went on it, I was so distracted by trying to figure out how it operated that I didn't even watch the screen. I couldn't even tell you what we saw. I missed the whole ride because I was trying to figure out how it worked. Was it worth it?

Another piece of magic slightly closer to home is my desk phone.

This phone has no power cable, just an ethernet jack. When I plug in the jack, the phone turns on. To me, this makes no sense, as I was under the impression that ethernet jacks couldn't provide power. But I must be wrong, since the evidence is clear: it works. I can make calls on it, and people can call me (even though I may not want them to). How and why are ethernet jacks capable of providing power? Or is something else going on and I'm just not seeing it? Is it worth the effort to figure out why it works rather than just accepting that it does?

I've slowly but surely come up with a litmus test that helps me determine if something that is "magic" is worth the time to figure out, to take apart and put back together. I do so if and only if:

  • The "magic" is directly related to a problem I'm trying to solve AND
  • The knowledge gained from investigating the "magic" is directly useful to solving other problems.

This test helps me determine whether or not further investigation would be useful for me. Let's see how our three examples of magic fare against this test.

First off, the Disneyland ride utterly fails our litmus test. Spending time to try to figure out how the ride worked at the expense of just enjoying it was absolutely not worth it. What was I going to do with the knowledge gained, impress my friends at some hypothetical party? I don't even go to regular parties, much less hypothetical ones. It didn't help me solve a problem; in fact it detracted from my enjoyment of my vacation and left me with less happiness than I might have had otherwise.

Taking apart the desk phone is also out. I mean, it's a phone and it works. I don't really need to know how it works, unless I suddenly need to be able to write code for it, which is unlikely. The test suggests that we should leave it alone.

But the CI/CD process is something I should know, even if only to be able to diagnose problems when they inevitably occur. The knowledge gained from learning about this procedure will absolutely be useful for later projects, since presumably they will be using the same or similar system. Plus, then I can be a teacher and help other people in my company set up their own CI/CD processes. The knowledge gained from investigating the magic would be useful in other areas.

We completionists will never have enough time to learn everything we want to learn, and so we have to learn to let go of that hope. This is not a sad thing, nor should it be, rather it's just part of learning to live a full, well-rounded life.

The point is, you don't have to spend the time to learn something that isn't going to be useful to you. Sometimes it's just not worth the effort. You have to actively manage your time, and since you'll never have enough of it, it's best to spend it as wisely as possible. Only you can determine exactly what that means, but for me, it means spending my time enjoying things I want to do, and learning about things that help me solve problems. Everything else is a waste of my precious time.

You might have heard of Clarke's Third Law, which states:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Sometimes it might be best to just leave it that way, and enjoy the ride.

Happy Coding!

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones

I'm a parent, a husband, a geek, a web developer, and a speaker, in roughly that order.

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How Much "Magic" Are We Comfortable With?
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