Programmer, Interrupted: Data, Brains, and Tools

Speaker  Christopher Parnin

Affiliation  Georgia Institute of Technolog & Georgia Tech Research Institute

Host  Tom Zimmerman

Duration  01:22:45

Date recorded  20 March 2014

Despite its vast capacity and associative powers, the human brain does not deal well with interruptions. Particularly in situations where information density is high, such as during a programming task, recovering from an interruption requires extensive time and effort. Although researchers recognize this problem, no programming tool takes into account the brain's structure and limitations in its design. In this talk, I describe my research collecting evidence about the impact of interruptions on programmers, understanding how programmers managed them in practice, and designing tools that can support interrupted programmers. I present a conceptual framework for understanding human memory organization and its strengths and weaknesses, particularly with respect to dealing with work interruptions. The framework explains empirical results obtained from experiments in which programmers were interrupted. For researchers, the intent is to use the framework to design development tools capable of compensating for human memory limitations. For developers, the insights and strategies from the framework should allow reflection on our own programming habits and work practices and how they may be tailored to better fit our human brain. Finally, I describe some initial results in using fMRI and EMG to further understand the programmer's brain, with long-term impact in education, evaluation, and tool and language design.

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