How to cook like a programmer

Hackers approach meal preparation like they do software development

Picture of a woman sitting in her kitchen working on a laptopImage credit: flickr/rochelle hartman (license)
Cooking and coding have more in common than you think

There’s was a fun discussion thread on Hacker News last week about hackers who cook. Someone asked hackers who love to cook why they do so and to share some of their favorite cooking productivity hacks and many people responded. While the thread is chock full of excellent, specific cooking tips, tricks and advice (e.g., know how to use knives, preparation is key, keep basic ingredients on hand, etc.) what I found most interesting were the comments and advice where the true geek shown through.

For example, while a number of people use cooking to get away from the screen and programming and to decompress after work, a number of others talked about the similarities between cooking and programming.

“Cooking is a form of engineering. I like that there's a science behind it, and I like that if you become any good, your standard-of-living (of eating?) will be vastly improved.” peterevans
“Many good practices in programming are applicable to cooking. That is, focus on one thing at a time, understand and maintain your tools well, keep your env clean, etc.” kimh
“I love to cook, I think because at my core I love to make things and my biggest motivation comes from creating and sharing, which is why I got into programming….” macNchz

There were a few other general themes these hackers shared that, in my opinion, reflected the programmer mindset.


What’s one thing geeks traditionally like to do? That’s right - study. They like to understand how things work. When it comes to cooking, they take the same approach.

“Watch Alton Brown's series Good Eats, it'll not only teach you loads of basic cooking techniques, but also the how & why behind these techniques, and even the chemistry/science of it.“ tripzilch
“Read the food science texts, too, because understanding why things work gives you room to experiment.” dgacmu
“Keep a cooking diary. Note what worked/didn't work and what you want to try with a recipe next.” zaphar

Recipes are only suggestions

Much like existing software and code, programmers feel that recipes should be used as a starting point to learn from, build upon and improve.

“Don't rely too much on recipes, use them to bootstrap your intuitions about ingredients, the principles behind different cuisines and formats of dish.” mjw
“Don't follow recipes literally. Instead of following exact quantities and time try to understand what each ingredient/method does and, then, perfect it in your way.” talles
“Don't learn recipes learn the underlying methods (the difference between being a script kiddie and a proper developer). That way you will understand why things work the way they do and you will always be able to make something good and healthy whether quick or slow.” ThomPete


When coders want a program to run faster, one common solution is parallelization. It’s not surprising then that, when it comes to preparing a meal, they take the same approach.

“... prepare your ingredients before starting, try to time the steps for potential parallelization, and don't wander off without setting a timer.” ferrari8608
“It comes down to your rhythm and how well you can multi-task. If you do everything linearly, it will take you a long time to get anything done. “ dbbolton


Programmers aren’t afraid to tinker around with things, to see if they can improve them or come up with something completely new. They bring the same attitude to the kitchen.

“Cooking is like startups..don't be afraid of failure.” ironchef
“Experiment. You'll f- it up. That's ok, it's still edible.” dgacmu

Like I said earlier, the thread is a fun read and really does have a lot of specific advice for those who want to do more cooking. If that’s you, I encourage you to check it out. And remember, the best thing about peparing a meal is, unlike some software development projects, it has a fixed end point.

“I like to cook because you always ship. You can't sit and obsess about it forever. That's liberating.” bravura

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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