Cardboard Developer

One morning last week, I woke up to a text from a former co-worker of mine, Justin:

“[Tyler] just called me a cardboard programmer, thought I had you to thank for that lol”

He had been working with another former co-worker, and during the course of their interaction was apparently thanked for serving as his cardboard developer. While admittedly I was happy to hear that “my” legacy lives on, I felt a little guilty for assuming credit for the origin of the reference. Hence, this post.

cardboard cutout

So what exactly, you ask, is this “cardboard developer” anyway?

There comes a time in every software engineers’ life when the frustration of staring at the same brick wall problem for hours on end leads to a drastic measure: the call for help. So the white flag is raised, and the formal terms of surrender are executed with an explanation of the circumstances surrounding the predicament to a fellow co-worker. During the course of explaining the problem to this individual, he or she often experiences a sudden a-ha moment during which they solve the problem themselves (this is usually something really obvious or stupid, mind you). So effectively, the lifeline summoned for assistance is about as useful as a cardboard cutout.

I fully attribute this concept to a co-worker of mine, Marc, from my time at Johns Hopkins University. He used to yell across the cube to me (or whoever else might be around at the time), “Hey, I need a cardboard developer!” He first introduced me to the concept, which has now become a regular staple in my day-to-day development vernacular when troubleshooting problems with others.

Nowadays when this phenomenon occurs after being called for assistance, I usually like to punctuate the situation with the following standard obligatory acknowledgement while walking back to my desk:

“Thank you very much, I have been your cardboard developer.”

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