Bouldering is for Engineers

The sport of choice for builders and problem solvers

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing performed without any ropes or harnesses along short distances (usually less than 20 feet). I have been bouldering for about five years, and I’ve observed that the sport tends to attract a mix of programmers, engineers, designers, and analysts. If you happen to go to my climbing gym (in midtown NYC), you’ll likely see folks wearing shirts with website brands, hackathon logos, engineering school emblems, or general nerd jokes. I often wear my Alan Turing (the computer scientist) t-shirt to see how many people come up to me and compliment it (and many do.) Here are my thoughts on why this is.

  1. Problem-solving: In bouldering, climbers ascend specific routes from beginning to end, keeping their hands and feet on the rocks that are marked for that route. Bouldering routes are appropriately called “problems.” One can see why someone whose job it is to conceive solutions to problems would be attracted to this arrangement. Climbers must figure out what sequence of techniques and body positioning they would need to solve a particular problem.
  2. Solo and optionally collaborative: Many engineers like to work on solving problems alone, and naturally, one can climb solo when bouldering. However, just like with engineering, bouldering is often collaborative, where a group of climbers work on solving the same problem together. Other types of climbing such as top rope climbing, where one person supports or “belays” the other, is similar to pair programming, a software development technique where one developer writes code, and the other observes and navigates.
  3. Iterative: The short nature of boulder problems allow climbers to try the problem many times, often tens of times in a single session. Each attempt, climbers make small adjustments to test what sequence of moves are more or less ideal. Often climbers take a “divide-and-conquer” approach, where they solve pieces of problems then put them together. Engineers and especially software developers often take a similar iterative approach when solving problems.
  4. Quantitative: One can easily measure their progress as a climber in cold, hard numbers. Each problem is given a difficulty ranking or a “grade” from 0 to 16. Engineers usually need to measure progress against some set of metrics (e.g. clicks, impressions, events), and the grading system of bouldering does just that.
  5. Open-source: In climbing, there is the term “beta,” or useful information about a particular climbing problem, usually regarding the intended sequence of moves. If you are having trouble with solving a problem, someone might approach you and ask, “You want the beta?” In other words, “Do you want some information about how to solve this problem?” Knowledge-sharing is vital to the software development community, with such ubiquitous concepts as “open-source” or “open-access.” Knowledge-sharing is a similarly common phenomenon of climbing.
  6. Open-ended: One can climb alone or with others, difficult problems or easy ones, for half an hour or all day, indoors or outdoors, in the city or in the country, after work or on the weekend, once a month or every day. Engineers tend to enjoy doing their own thing with whatever structure suits them best. Bouldering and climbing provides one with that freedom.
  7. Accessible: One of the best climbers in the world is a tiny Japanese girl. She is probably the best example of the fact that size and strength are not prerequisites for getting really good at climbing. Being tall and having huge muscles often are disadvantages since many hard problems demand grace, balance, and flexibility over brute strength. If you have the patience to learn the technique of climbing, you can become a good climber no matter what your body type.

Even though this post is an analysis of bouldering, I hope it also serves as praise and promotion for the sport. I would highly recommend trying it a few times (a few because it will take a few sessions before you start to get a feel for it.) Bouldering is a unique mix of physical activity, thinking, collaboration, and fun.