144. Ballmer Peak: Has Drinking Ever Helped You Program Better?


Today on the show we’ll be talking about Ballmer Peak, the blood alcohol level between 0.129% and 0.138% that gives you superhuman programming ability, and whether or not this has helped us to get better at programming. Ballmer Peak was discovered by Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, and is certainly a topic of interest to most programmers out there. The concept was made popular by webcomic xkcd who imagined programmers being driven to alcohol by the frustrating task of coding. When it comes to the effectiveness of Ballmer Peak, often times it depends how fast you drink, what your emotional state is, and what it is you are actually working on. So does the work get done? Yes. But does it get done right? That’s what we are here to determine! Stay tuned as we dive into this topic and try to pinpoint if it really does help make us better programmers.


Key Points From This Episode:


  • What is Ballmer Peak and how was it discovered?
  • Who made the concept popular?
  • Our own personal stories of having alcohol at work.
  • Scientific studies done around people’s performance on problems while drinking.
  • When is it a not a good idea to have a drink while working?
  • Examples of places where you would have a drink while programming.
  • Why non-drinking events are often more socially inclusive.
  • The luxury of working for very progressive companies.
  • Importance of finding the balance: to have fun while coding.
  • And much more!

Transcript for Episode 144. Ballmer Peak: Has Drinking Ever Helped You Program Better?



[00:00:01] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developers podcast, in fantabulous Chelsea, Manhattan. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our cohost today –

[00:00:09] DA: Dave Anderson.

[00:00:10] MN: And today, we’ll be talking about Ballmer’s Peak: Has drinking ever helped you get better at programming? Oh, man! If you haven't noticed, I probably had a couple drinks just now, so I’m wondering if it’s going to make me a better podcaster.

[00:00:23] DA: Yeah. A friend of the show, Blake. 

[00:00:25] MN: Yup. Blake Deboer. 

[00:00:27] DA: He's moving down south. This one's for you.

[00:00:29] MN: Cheers to him. Yeah. I had a couple drinks and I was like, “Hey! We still need to podcast. This needs to go down.”

[00:00:34] DA: Yeah. I got to check my tats, what episodes he’s on. One of the top episodes, all time. Going through the tats, it’s episode number 80.

[00:00:42] MN: 80?

[00:00:42] DA: Building a scrum team.

[00:00:44] MN: Oh! Clutch. First 100, let’s go build a scrum team. Check it out. Blake, you will be missed. Thanks for joining on the podcast. But we’re going to talk about whether drinking alcohol makes you a better programmer.

[00:00:58] DA: Well, I definitely like feel more powerful, like more confident sometimes when I drink.

[00:01:06] MN: I mean, it depends how fast I drink from time to time.

[00:01:09] DA: Sometimes sad, sometimes silly.

[00:01:12] MN: Yeah. Does the work get done? Yes. Does it get done right? Let’s – We’ll figure that out.

[00:01:16] DA: Tomorrow morning.

[00:01:17] MN: Where does the Ballmer’s Peak come from?

[00:01:20] DA: I think Ballmer Peak is like – They did an xkcd on this. As every topic in the world, there’s always a relevant xkcd. 

[00:01:28] MN: Yes.

[00:01:31] DA: Yeah. xkcd explained, which I think we've mentioned before on the show. It has a really great article explaining what a Ballmer Peak is, which is the idea that much of Window’s success in the ‘90s and Microsoft was due to Steve Ballmer just crushing code at like the appropriate BAC, which I think according to legend is somewhere around like .12 or something like that.

[00:01:57] MN: According to xkcd, the comic has it as a 0.129 and 0.138.

[00:02:05] DA: Yeah, that is not legal driving limit in any state.

[00:02:08] MN: It’s crazy. But, yeah, he managed to be able to crush and make windows awesome except for one. I guess they kind of got out of hand, and that's why we all had Windows Me.

[00:02:23] DA: Yup, that’s the punch line.

[00:02:24] MN: Oh, yeah. Windows Me. Yeah, we may all have had some form of alcohol consumption and thought we were better programmers. I have a place that I worked at before on a Fridays at 3:00 PM. The – Hopefully, I’ll try to keep it as anonymous as possible. But the CTO of this company I worked back made Manhattans for everyone. He was like, “Hey! It’s three o'clock. It’s Friday. Let's celebrate.” But we still had like two hours and a half left of work, and he knew that.

One Manhattan, I felt really good. I felt like I was writing good tests and I was great. The second Manhattan, my pair and I are just talking nonsense. That’s kind of what happens, so I always kept it to one if I want to be really productive and if I wanted to end the week early. I’d go for the second one.

[00:03:10] DA: Right. I mean, Manhattan is just a couple liquor so –

[00:03:13] MN: Yeah. Just straight up.

[00:03:15] DA: Really committed. I mean, I feel like you maybe had two beers. You might be able to be okay, depending on your tolerance. But a couple Manhattans, that’s nuts.

[00:03:24] MN: Yeah, that’s straight alcohol. One is fine.

[00:03:27] DA: I mean, it’s like a – That’s a nice act of service though by the CEO, like the management when we talk about servant leadership. I guess making Manhattans for you team, it’s a –

[00:03:38] MN: No, it’s good rapport. It’s a good morale. Good for morale, right? This is like, “Hey, guys! We did a great week and we had a great week, and here’s a Manhattan for you.”

[00:03:48] DA: Yeah. I’ve really been to places that have like the drink cart as well, like just rolling around with a little party. Some snacks and some booze.

[00:03:57] MN: Oh, yeah. Those are good. Those are good. Alcohol in other places tend to be around, and this one place I worked at had a particular rule. I joined the company when it was already established. Rather whether this rule was already established. Whenever there was a meeting that was scheduled on someone's calendar like 10 minutes before, if someone asked, “Hey! Is this a drinking meeting,” it became a drinking meeting.

[00:04:27] DA: It just sounds like one of those fake rules that like I don’t know.

[00:04:30] MN: Bobby wanted to drink, so he wants to let everyone know.

[00:04:33] DA: There’s like king’s cup or something, right? Whoever draws the king – When you’re playing the drinking in-house to like make up a rule or something. He just made up that rule, and it’s like, “Well, this is forever now.”

[00:04:44] MN: Yeah, this is forever now. Anytime someone asked if it was a drinking meeting, it just became one. I mean, it was really interesting because he would think that it would be exercise and abused. But it actually was once a week you’d get someone to like, “You know, it’s like four o’clock, and you’re pulling me into this meeting. I’m going to say it, and then it becomes one.”

[00:05:03] DA: Okay.

[00:05:05] MN: But like, yeah, it was a thing, and I thought it was pretty clever to –

[00:05:09] DA: So no one's ever doing that at stand up like –

[00:05:11] MN: It’s not a –

[00:05:12] DA: It’s not some drinking meeting.

[00:05:14] MN: About 10:30 AM, “Hey! Is this a drinking stand up?” That’d be wild.

[00:05:19] DA: Yeah. I was surprised to read that like there's actually some scientific studies around people's performance on problems while they’re drinking, and there's actually evidence that supports that a moderate amount of drinking can help you in some specific ways.

[00:05:39] MN: No way. Pour me another. Let’s talk about that.

[00:05:42] DA: I think you’re past your peak. You’re cut off.

[00:05:45] MN: Cut off!

[00:05:47] DA: Yeah. It was like a pretty moderate consumption more or less in the Ballmer Peak in front of xkcd. Maybe like .05.

[00:05:56] MN: I see.

[00:05:56] DA: It’s like one drink. But, yeah, they’re finding that people's response time on questions were faster. That increased confidence and also find that certain kinds of creativity were increased at the cost of some ability to use working memory.

[00:06:15] MN: Okay. You can’t use the RAM in your brain, but like being creative is actually better when you had a drink.

[00:06:23] DA: Right, yeah.

[00:06:23] MN: Not one Manhattan.

[00:06:24 DA: Just throwing random ideas out there and see what happens.

[00:06:28] MN: Besides paring at 3:00 PM on a Friday, what are some places where you would have a drink while you're programming or working?

[00:06:38] DA: I mean, I can tell you time is not a good time to be drinking. When you’re on call, like that is a nightmare.

[00:06:45] MN: Wait. But like you were on call at a bar or like at home?

[00:06:50] DA: I mean, I guess I was not really on call but I just like the only person who was available. It was like New Year's Eve, and I was hanging with friends, and we were playing clue. I know one thing led to another, and it just went too far. Then I got a call around midnight from somebody being like, “Oh! This thing isn't working properly.” I definitely felt that like lack of working memory.

[00:07:22] MN: Oh, no!

[00:07:24] DA: I stuck with him for like a couple hours and I was like, “I'm sorry, guys. I'm useless to you. I’ll get back to you on this.”

[00:07:32] MN: Let me eat some bread and go to sleep. I’ll wake up and I'll be able to help out.

[00:07:37] DA: Exactly, yeah.

[00:07:38] MN: I think I may have done it like in support but I always – It wasn't at a party over there, because like New Year's you’re going to drink, right? It’s just time to celebrate and stuff like that. But I think I’ve had it where I’m like at home. I’ll have one and I got a call. It was just one glass of Johnny Walker Black. This is not a promotion. Like, “One. I'll be fine, and everything will be okay.”

I was lucky enough to not get the call, but like fact that I was being precautious by having one and like ready to go like, “Yeah, I’m ready to support.” Maybe I wouldn’t have been good but I was ready.

[00:08:13] DA: I mean, there’s confidence. There's reaction time increased.

[00:08:16] MN: That can’t wait. It’s like looking at the graph and see if there’s any errors spiking like, “I'm ready,” and takes a sip. Yeah, let's go.

[00:08:21] DA: Oh, my gosh! I imagine like a hacker thing. That is reflected in your glasses. You’re just absolutely typing maniacally.

[00:08:29] MN: Yeah, I mean –

[00:08:30] DA: Not words, just typing.

[00:08:32] MN: Just bashing my wrist against the keyboard, because I’m so drunk. But I think I can see why someone may have one, two beers and like feel relaxed and be able to go in support. As I mentioned before, being creative and like a solution may be able to help you get to the problem and how to solve it. But the RAM kind of gets – It goes down the [inaudible 00:08:55]. You get more reaction time and more confidence. It’s the – What do they call that? The confidence juice or something like that. I’m not sure. I can’t —

[00:09:03] DA: Liquid courage.

[00:09:04] MN: Liquid courage, yes.

[00:09:06] DA: Sometimes, you need that.

[00:09:07] MN: Yeah. Liquid courage is always good. I had – To the kids, I refer to it as happy juice. The kids cannot have happy juice like my nieces. No, no happy juice for you. Not till you’re older. So I’m pretty sure I’m going to refer to it to Geo as happy juice. Don’t touch my happy juice. So happy juice –

[00:09:22] DA: Happy juice sounds great to have too. It’s like –

[00:09:25] MN: The kids want to be happy.

[00:09:26] DA: Like Gatorade or something. It’s the sweaty juice. Then there’s the happy juice.

[00:09:30] MN: Yeah. Tell the kids, “Hey! You’re already happy. You’re a kid. I need this juice, all right, to be happy.”

[00:09:35] DA: Oh, no! I didn’t think about that.

[00:09:37] MN: That’s pretty much what happens.

[00:09:39] DA: Oh, no! Yeah, I mean like you don’t always need to drink though.

[00:09:47] MN: No. Yeah, especially for those who don’t.

[00:09:48] DA: Sometimes, it's like more socially inclusive to have like a nondrinking event. Some people, they just don't drink.

[00:09:57] MN: Right. I mean, does the Ballmer Peak apply to like THC or like marijuana, like you take two puffs so that you program? What’s the level? I don't know.

[00:10:07] DA: I could not tell you.

[00:10:09] MN: I don’t know? If you know, if you out there is smoking that good, good, good, send us a tweet @radiofreerabbit, I'm curious how you Ballmer’s Peak with other substances, including marijuana or whatever have you, don't do it, kids.

[00:10:24] DA: I mean, that's a very Bay Area thing I guess like California.

[00:10:28] MN: Yeah. I mean like microdosing is a thing that people feel like they get encouraged. I don't know what drugs are in microdosing, but that's a thing I guess that people will subscribe to. That’s pretty weak.

[00:10:39] DA: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s like a similar motivation really. You want to increase creativity or problem-solving or something or unlock some hidden potential that’s like kind of locked up inside of your awkward self.

[00:10:54] MN: Right. I’m just not going to microdose acid.  This is not — I’m not trying to do that, whatever. I don’t know what drug. Mushrooms. I don’t know. I’m a saint, bro. I just drink alcohol. I don’t know.

[00:11:06] DA: I didn’t even Google it.

[00:11:07] MN: Yeah. People back in those days told me to check it out. Don’t do it. I’m not telling you to do it.

[00:11:12] DA: Do it and [inaudible 00:11:12].

[00:11:13] MN: They’ll do it. [inaudible 00:11:14]. Don’t blame it on @radiofreerabbit. But like there are things and people like tend to do it, and they find progress in it. They’re not fired. They’re still doing the thing, doing the programming.

[00:11:25] DA: That’s kind of a luxury there, right, of working for very progressive companies based out of California or whatever that they don't have those kind of policies. A lot of companies do enforce drug tests and things like that, so you do have to be mindful of that for sure.

[00:11:45] MN: People out here are doing it. I mean, I just Googled this, so it’s a thing. Yeah, you would take mushrooms, and there’s a whole side of this sub reddit I just found on microdosing and programming, coding. I’m not down for that, no. Just give me some alcohol, and I’ll be fine. That’s it for me.

[00:12:04] DA: Yeah. It’s just funny. There’s this thread that you’re looking at right now, which just says, “Has anyone ever done microdosing and programming?” Someone says, “You mean the most common use of microdosing?” Then the only response is just a bunch of laughing.

[00:12:20] MN: Yeah, exactly. Yes.

[00:12:22] DA: It’s kind of insane.

[00:12:25] MN: Microdosing is a thing, and I guess people do it the same way people want exploit Ballmer’s Peak with alcohol.

[00:12:32] DA: But I feel like last year I did a dry January. I felt like you miss some perspective too. I feel like that was like a different kind of extreme. Not a Ballmer’s Peak.

[00:12:32] MN: They’re completely sober.

[00:12:47] DA: It was not a peak. It’s just kind of like a tundra or something. It was really a plateau. I just – Very even, still a sense of superiority coming out of it though. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m dry this month.”

[00:13:01] MN: It’s awesome.

[00:13:03] DA: But, yeah, I think that that’s something that’s like very respectable too, like going for other social beverages like tea or coffee or kombucha.

[00:13:14] MN: Yeah. Matcha is like the new – Everyone loves the much nowadays.

[00:13:18] DA: Oh, my gosh! I had some matcha before I came here.

[00:13:21] MN: You microdosed with matcha, bro?

[00:13:24] DA: Mixing the match and whiskey. It’s wow. It’s confusing but delicious. But, yeah, it’s good to have like inclusive events. If you have like a big important thing, it can be fun just to like hang out, have some soda, and chill out.

[00:13:41] MN: Yeah. Whether you’re on the Ballmer’s Peak or trying to plateau up on it –

[00:13:46] DA: Above it maybe.

[00:13:48] MN: Crush it. I mean, you want to crush it. I don’t know. Keep having a dry month or a dry amount of time. Whatever gets you programming where you’re having fun.

[00:13:57] DA: Yeah. One in a lifetime.

[00:13:58] MN: I mean, if you do a lifetime like power to you, much respect. Whatever gets you to program where you can definitely be more creative and write tests and have a good time, I’m always down for it. I mean, don't pass me a bottle at 10:30 in the morning. I'm not an alcoholic. But, yeah, 3:00 PM on a Friday, yeah. Last little bit. Take a sip.

[00:14:21] DA: Yeah. I mean, next time, we’ll like meditate before this podcast session instead of drinking whiskey.

[00:14:26] MN: I mean, I would meditate and then drink whiskey. I don’t know.

[00:14:32] DA: That’s very amenable. That’s going to be a fun time.

[00:14:34] MN: But if you – Yeah, programming efficient code is important. If you’ve got to take a beer too to let loose and be more confident in your code, hey, sometimes you got to do it. Give it a try. Just don’t – If you’re going to do it. I don’t know. I’ve got to be responsible. Please just let it be alcohol. I don’t want you to get shrooms from some sketchy individual and then like macrodose. We don't want that. That's not cool. Alcohol is the way to go for me personally.

If you think this podcast episode was actually really good, let me know, so I can have an excuse to have alcohol before the recording, which is why I get the alcohol.

[00:15:16] DA: Let us know at which minute is stopping good too, so when we know when we hit the peak.

[00:15:20] MN: When we hit Ballmer’s, yes. If you let us know when we hit Ballmer’s Peak, at what time, let us know, so we can definitely manage it a little better next time.


[00:15:30] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit, so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five-star review and help developers just like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole and never miss an episode. Subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast.

On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries, and my amazing cohost, Dave Anderson, and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.


Links and Resources:

The Rabbit Hole on Twitter

Blake DeBoer on Linkedin

The Rabbit Hole Episode #80: Blake DeBoer