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Apprenticeship Patterns by Adewale Oshineye, Dave Hoover

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Craft over Art

I would describe programming as a craft, which is a kind of art, but not a fine art. Craft means making useful objects with perhaps decorative touches. Fine art means making things purely for their beauty.

Richard Stallman in “Art and Programming” [15]

Context

You are being paid to build something that will solve a problem for a customer.

Problem

Although there is a proven solution available, your customer’s problem represents an opportunity to do something truly fantastic, providing you with an opportunity to create something beautiful that will impress your colleagues.

Solution

Craftsmanship is built upon strong relationships. Focus on delivering value to your customer over advancing your own self-interests.

As a craftsman you are primarily building something that serves the needs of others, not indulging in artistic expression. After all, there’s no such thing as a starving craftsman. As our friend Laurent Bossavit put it: “For a craftsman to starve is a failure; he’s supposed to earn a living at his craft.”[16] You need to do your best work in ways that place the interests of your customers over your desire to display skill or pad your resume, while still adhering to the minimum standards of competence provided by the software development community. Walking the Long Road means you must balance these conflicting demands. If you starve because you are too much of an artist and your creations are too beautiful to be delivered in the real world, then you have left the craft. If your desire to do beautiful work forces you out of professional software development and away from building useful things for real people, then you have left the craft.

The things we build for customers can be beautiful, but must be useful. Part of the process of maturation encompassed by this pattern is developing the ability to sacrifice beauty in favor of utility if and when it becomes necessary.

Indulging in the creation of beautiful but useless artifacts is not craftsmanship. A craftsman values a fifty-line game that makes someone smile over a million-line game that pushes the frontiers of computer science but is unplayable.

Another aspect of craft over art is that your customers need you to produce satisfactory quality even when you don’t feel like it. A craftsman is unwilling to wait until inspiration strikes before she delivers artifacts that satisfy her customers. This has both positive and negative connotations. On the one hand, the craftsman is barred from the idyllic playground of art, where other people pay her to build the things she wants. On the other hand, she and her customers have the satisfaction of creating and using software that provides immediate value.

This pattern is not about doing merely what is expedient. It also encompasses the idea that a useful craft artifact always displays at least a minimal level of quality. When using this pattern you will have to balance your customer’s desire for the immediate resolution of their problem with the internal standards that make you a craftsman. Being able to hold on to these standards even when you are under pressure requires you to develop an understanding that utility and beauty are not opposed, but interdependent. The more useful a piece of software, the more important it is that the software be high quality. But quality takes time. You will have to work toward a suitable level of quality by repeatedly making trade-offs between beauty and utility. Sometimes you will make the wrong trade-off, and fixing that mistake by rewriting the system from scratch may not be in the customer’s best interest. In those situations you will need to develop the ability to refactor and repair. As Sennet wrote, “it is by fixing things that we often get to understand how they work.”[17] In this case, the time spent on fixes when you have veered too far toward either art or expediency will teach you lessons about software development that cannot be learned in any other way.

Action

In the next 24 hours, find an opportunity to do something useful rather than beautiful. This may be a straightforward choice, or it may involve a more subtle trade-off. The important thing is to make yourself aware of the issues discussed here when you choose what to do.

Another way to improve your awareness is to think of situations over the last year where you chose artistry over utility. How did that turn out? Write down what you think would have happened if you had made a different choice.

See Also

The Long Road.



[15] John Littler, “Art and Computer Programming.” Available at: http://www.onlamp.com/pub/a/onlamp/2005/06/30/artofprog.html.

[16] Laurent Bossavit, personal communication.

[17] The Craftsman, p. 199

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