The Ballmer Curve - what and how?

Wednesday, January 15th 2020

You heard me right, the Ballmer Curve. What is it exactly? I didn’t quite know until a couple weeks ago after seeing a meme on Instagram (Also follow me on Instagram).

The Ballmer Curve, otherwise known as the Ballmer Peak, is the correlation between blood-alcohol percentage, and programming ability.

Although said definition doesn’t give you the whole picture. It seems that with a precise blood alcohol percentage, you can gain somewhat “superhuman” programming abilities - sounds like a dream. Although there’s a catch: You need to balance your blood alcohol level between 0.129% and 0.138% - a very tight margin of 0.009%.

When I talk about it like this, it sounds too good to be true right? Is there actually a term for the correlation between drinking and coding? Well yes, it’s an actual term with actual studies.

Where did the name come from?

The name “Ballmer” comes from a previous CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer. The term was coined in the late 80s, but at the time the cause of said effect was unknown. And although we still don’t know the exact cause, we have a bit more of an idea of what is happening when the alcohol is getting to us.

A web comic known as xkcd made a bigger display of this concept, highlighting its discovery and proper usage.

xkcd's comic on the Ballmer Peak

To work that out, we’ll have to take a look at the studies done at the University of Illinois.

The University of Illinois study

The study, conducted by a “Jennifer Wiley”, tested 40 social drinkers - half would watch a movie with drinks and snacks, the other half would just watch the movie. Each half was then asked to answer a series of problem-solving tasks and brain teasers. Suprisingly, those who ate and drank scored significantly higher than those who didn’t.

Then, the ballmer curve?

Although you may have noticed, this wasn’t a programming exam that directly relates to the Ballmer curve. However, Jennifer’s study did conclude one important thing to our Ballmer curve - at peak intoxication, peaks creativity. Which is exactly what is being described when we’re programming, coding or whatever you’d like to call it.

Because programming is a mental and creative exercise - full of brain teasers and problem-solving like the questions that were used to test the social drinkers.

For us devs it could mean something. If you push yourself over the brink, it might not be a very productive night in your dev space. But if you’re curious about hitting that Ballmer peak, maybe give it a try one night. It could help you solve an issue or two that’s been bugging you for a couple days. Trust me, we’ve all been there.

I wrote this article because I think I may have gotten close to, or have hit said peak once. I sat down with a cider and cracked some programming down me. It was suprisingly effective, and I couldn’t have imagined it’d be an actual thing.

And here I am, writing an article on it. Very cool.