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More on "Craftsmanship"

01.29.2013
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TL;DR: To all those who dissented, you're right, but you're wrong. Craftsmanship is a noble meme, when it's something that somebody holds as a personal goal, but it's often coming across as a way to beat up and denigrate on others who don't choose to invest significant time and energy into programming. The Zen Masters didn't walk around the countryside, proclaiming "I am a Zen Master!"

Wow. Apparently I touched a nerve.

It's been 48 hours since I posted On the Dark Side of 'Craftsmanship', and it's gotten a ton of interest, as well as a few syndicated re-posts (DZone and a few others). Comments to the blog included a response from Dave Thomas, other blog posts have been brought to my attention, and Twitter was on FIRE with people pinging me with their thoughts, which turn out to be across the spectrum, approving and dissenting. Not at all what I really expected to happen, to be honest--I kinda thought it would get lost in the noise of others commenting around the whole thing.

But for whatever reason, it's gotten a lot of attention, so I feel a certain responsibility to respond and explain to some of the dissenters who've responded. Not to defend, per se, but to at least demonstrate some recognition and attempt to clarify my position where I think it's gotten mis-heard. (To those who approved of the message, thank you for your support, and I'm happy to have vocalized something you felt unable, unwilling, unheard, or too busy to vocalize yourself. I hope my explanations here continue to represent your opinions, but if not, please feel free to let me know.)

A lot of the opinions centered around a few core ideas, it seems, so let me try and respond to those first.

You're confusing "craftsmanship" with a few people behaving badly. That may well be, but those who behaved badly included at least one who holds himself up as a leader of the craftsman movement and has held his actions up as indications of how "craftsmen" should behave. When you do this, you invite this kind of criticism and association. So if the movement is being given a black eye because of the actions of a single individual, well, now you know how a bunch of moderate Republicans feel about Paul Ryan.

Corey is a nice guy, he apologized, don't crucify him. Of course he is. Corey is a nice guy--and, speaking well to his character, he apologized almost immediately when it all broke. I learned a long time ago that "true sorry" means you (a) apologize for your actions, (b) seek to remedy the damage your actions have caused ("make it right", in other words), and (c) avoid making the same mistake in the future. From a distance, it seems like he feels contrition, and has publicly apologized for his actions. I would hope he's reached out to Heather directly to try and make things right with her, but that's between the two of them. Whether he avoids this kind of activity in the future remains to be seen. I think he will, but that's because I think he's learned a harsh lesson about being in the spotlight--it tends to be a harsh place to be. The rest of this really isn't about Corey and Heather anymore, so as far as I'm concerned, that thread complete.

You misunderstand the nature of "craftsmanship". Actually, no, I don't. At its heart, the original intent of "craftsmanship" was a constant striving to be better about what you do, and taking pride in the things that you do. It's related to the Japanese code of the samurai (kanban) that says, in essence, that we are constantly striving to get better. The samurai sought to become better swordsmen, constantly challenging each other to prove the mettle against one another, improving their skills and, conditioning, but also their honor, by how they treated each other, their lord, their servants, and those they sought to protect. Kanban is a wonderful code, and one I have tried to live my entire life, even before I'd discovered it. Please don't assume that I misunderstand the teachings of your movement just because I don't go to the meetings.

Why you pick on "craftsmanship", anyway? If I want to take pride in what I do, what difference does it make? This is me paraphrasing on much of the dissent, and my response boils down to two basic thoughts:

  1. If you think your movement is "just about yourself", why invent a label to differentiate yourself from the rest?
  2. If you invent a label, it becomes almost automatic to draw a line between "us" and "them", and that in of itself almost automatically leads to "us vs them" behavior and mentality.
Look, I view this whole thing as kind of like religion: whatever you want to do behind closed doors, that's your business. But when you start waving it in other peoples' faces, then I have a problem with it. You want to spend time on the weekends improving your skills, go for it. You want to spend time at night learning a bunch of programming languages so you can improve your code and your ability to design systems, go for it. You want to study psychology and philosophy so you can understand other people better when it comes time to interact with them, go for it. And hey, you want to put some code up somewhere so people can point to it and help you get it better, go for it. But when you start waving all that time and dedication in my face, you're either doing it because you want recognition, or you want to suggest that I'm somehow not as good as you. Live the virtuous life, don't brag about it.

There were some specific blogs and comments that I think deserve discusson, too:

Dave Thomas was kind enough to comment on my blog:

I remember the farmer comment :) I think I said 30%, but I stand by what I said. And it isn't really an elitist stance. Instead, I feel that programming is hard work. At the end of a day of coding, I'm tired. And so I believe that if you are asking someone to do programming, then it is in both your and their interest that they are doing something they enjoy. Because if they don't enjoy it, then they are truly just a laborer, working hard at something that has no meaning to them. And as you spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week doing it, that seems like an awful waste of an intelligent person's life.

Sure, programming is hard. So is house painting. They're different kinds of exhaustion, but it's exhaustion all the same. But, frankly, if somebody has chosen to take up a job that they do just because it's a job, that's their choice, and not ours to criticize, in my opinion. (And I remember it as 50%, because I very clearly remember saying the "way to insult half the room" crack after it, but maybe I misheard you. I do know others also heard it at 50%, because an attendee or two came up to talk about it after the panel. At least, that's how I remember it at the time. But the number itself is kinda meaningless, now that I think about it.)

The farming quote was a deliberate attempt at being shocking to make a point. But I still think it is valid. I'd guess that 30% of the developers I meet are not happy in their work. And I think those folks would be happier and more fulfilled doing something else that gave them more satisfaction.

Again, you and I are both in agreement, that people should be doing what they love, but that's a personal judgment that each person is permitted to make for themselves. There are aspects of our lives that we don't love, but we do because they make other people happy (Juliet and Charlotte driving the boys around to their various activities comes to mind, for example), and it is not our position to judge how others choose for themselves, IMHO.

No one should have to be a laborer.

And here, you and I will disagree quite fundamentally: as I believe it was Martin Luther King, Jr, who said, "If you are going to be a janitor, be the best janitor you know how to be." It seems by that statement that you are saying that people who labor with their bodies rather than your minds (and trust me, you may not be a laborer anymore, big publishing magnate that you are, but I know I sure still am) are somehow less well-off than those who have other people working for them. Some people don't want the responsibility of being the boss, or the owner. See the story of the mexican fisherman at the end of this blog.

Nate commented:

You have a logical fallacy by lumping together the people that derided Heather's code and people that are involved in software craftmanship. It's actually a huge leap of logic to make that connection, and it really retracts from the article.

As I point out later, the people who derided Heather's code were some of the same folks who hold up software craftsmanship. That wasn't me making that up.

Now you realise that you are planting your flag firmly in the 'craftmanship' camp while propelling your position upwards by drawing a line in the sand to define another group of people as 'labourers'. Or in other words attempt to elevate yourself by patronising others with the position you think you are paying them a compliment. Maybe you do not realise this?

No, I realize it, and it's a fair critique, which is why I don't label myself as a "craftsman". I have more to say on this below.

However, have you considered that the craft is not how awesome and perfect you and your code are, but what is applicable for the task at hand. I think most people who you would put into either camp share the same mix of attributes whether good or bad. The important thing is if the solution created does what it is designed to do, is delivered on time for when it is needed and if the environment that the solution has been created for warrants it, that the code is easily understandable by yourself and others (that matter) so it can be developed further over time and maintained.

And the very people who call themselves "craftsmen" criticized a piece of code that, as near as I can tell, met all of those criteria. Hence my reaction that started this whole thing.

I don't wish to judge you, and maybe you are a great, smart guy who does good in the world, but like you I have not researched anything about you, I have simply read your assessment above and come to a conclusion, that's being human I guess.

Oh, people judge each other all the time, and it's high time we stopped beating them up for it. It's human to judge. And while it would be politically correct to say, "You shouldn't judge me before you know me", fact is, of course you're going to do exactly that, because you don't have time to get to know me. And the fact that you don't know me except but through the blog is totally acceptable--you shouldn't have to research me in order to have an opinion. So we're all square on that point. (As to whether I'm a great smart guy who does good in the world, well, that's for others to judge in my opinion, not mine.)

The above just sounds like more of the same 'elitism' that has been ripe in this world from playground to the workplace since the beginning.

It does, doesn't it? And hopefully I clarify the position more clearly later.

In It's OK to love your job, Chad McCallum says that

The basic premise (or at least the one the author start out with) is that because there’s a self-declared group of “software craftspeople”, there is going to be an egotistical divide between those who “get it” and those who don’t.

Like it or not, Chad, that egotistical divide is there. You can "call bullshit" all day long, but look at the reactions that have popped up over this--people feel that divide, and frankly, it's one that's been there for a long, long time. This isn't just me making this up.

Chad also says,

It’s true the feedback that Heather got was unnecessarily negative. And that it came from people who are probably considered “software craftspeople”. That said, correlation doesn’t equal causation. I’m guessing the negative feedback was more because those original offenders had a bad day and needed to vent. And maybe the comments after that one just jumped on the bandwagon because someone with lots of followers and/or respect said it.

These are both things that can and have happened to anyone, regardless of the industry they work in. It’s extremely unfair to associate “someone who’s passionate about software development” to “person who’s waiting to jump on you for your mistakes”.


Unfortunately, Chad, the excuse that "others do it, too" is not an acceptable excuse. If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too? I understand the rationale--it's extremely hard being the one to go against the herd (I've got the psychological studies I can cite at you that prove it), but that doesn't make it OK or excuse it. Saying "it happens in other industries" is just an extension of that. In other industries, women are still explicitly discriminated against--does that make it OK for us to do that, too?

Chad closes his blog with "Stop calling us egotistical jerks just because we love what we do." To which I respond, "I am happy to do so, as soon as those 'craftsmen' who are acting like one, stop acting like one." If you're not acting like one, then there should be no argument here. If you're trying to tell me that your label is somehow immune to criticism, then I think we just have to agree to disagree.

Paul Pagel (on a site devoted to software craftsmanship, no less) responded as well with his Humble Pursuit of Mastery. He opens with:

I have been reading on blogs and tweets the sentiment that "software craftsmanship is elitism". This perception is formed around comments of code, process, or techniques. I understand a craftsman's earned sense of pride in their work can sometimes be inappropriately communicated.

I don't think I commented on code, process or technique, so I can't be sure if this is directly refuting what I'm saying, but I note that Paul has already touched on the meme he wants to communicate in his last phrase: the craftsman's "earned sense of pride". I have no problem with the work being something that you take pride in; I note, however, that "pride goeth before a fall", and note that, again, Ozymandias was justifiably proud of his accomplishments, too.

Paul then goes through a summation of his career, making sure to smallcaps certain terms with which I have no argument: "sacrifice", "listen", "practicing", "critique" and "teaching". And, in all honesty, these are things that I embrace, as well. But I start getting a little dubious about the sanctity of your terminology, Paul, when it's being used pretty blatantly as an advertising slogan and theme all over the site--if you want the term to remain a Zen-like pursuit, then you need to keep the commercialism out of it, in my opinion, or you invite the kind of criticism that's coming here (explicit or implicit).

Paul's conclusion wraps up with:

Do sacrificing, listening, practice, critiquing, and teaching sound like elitist qualities to you? Software craftsmanship starts out as a humble endeavor moving towards mastery. I won't let 140 or 1000 characters redefine the hours and years spent working hard to become a craftsman. It gave me humility and the confidence to be a professional software developer. Sometimes I let confidence get the better of me, but I know when that happens I am not honoring the spirit of craftsmanship which I was trained.

Humility enough to trademark your phrase "Software is our craft"? Humility enough to call yourself a "driving force" behind software craftsmanship? Don't get me wrong, Paul, there is a certain amount of commercialism that any consultant must adopt in order to survive--but either please don't mix your life-guiding principles with your commercialism, or else don't be surprised when others take aim at your "humility" when you do. It's the same when ministers stand in a multi-million dollar building on a Sunday morning and talk about the parable of the widow giving away her last two coppers--that smacks of hypocrisy.

Finally, Matt van Horn wrote in Crafsmanship, a rebuttal that:

there is an allusion to software craftsmen as being an exclusive group who agre on the “right” tools and techniques. This could not be further from the truth. Anyone who is serious about their craft knows that for every job there are some tools that are better and some that are worse.

... but then he goes right into making that exact mistake:

Now, I may not have a good definition of elegant code, but I definitely know it when I see it – regardless of who wrote it. If you can’t see that
(1..10).each{|i| puts i}

is more elegant than
x = 0
while true do
  x = x + 1
  if x > 10
    break
  end
  puts x
end

then you must near the beginning of your journey towards mastery. Practicing your craft develops your ability to recognize these differences, just as a skilled tailor can more easily spot the difference between a bespoke suit and something from Men’s Wearhouse.

Matt, you kind of make my point for me. What makes it elegant? You take it as self-evident. I don't. As a matter of fact, I've been asking this question for some years now, "What makes code 'elegant', as opposed to 'ugly'? Ironically, Elliott Rusty Harold just blogged about how this style of coding is dangerous in Java, and got crucified for it, but he has the point that functional style (your first example) doesn't JIT as well as the more imperative style right now on the JVM (or on the CLR, from what I can tell). Are you assuming that this will be running on a native Ruby implementation, on JRuby, IronRuby, ...? You have judged the code in the second example based on an intrinsic value system that you may have never questioned. To judge, you have to be able to explain your judgments in terms of the value system. And the fact that you judge without any context, kind of speaks directly to the point I was trying to make: "craftsmen", it seems, have this tendency to judge in absence of context, because they are clearly "further down their journey towards mastery", to use your own metaphor.

Or, to put it much more succinctly, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder".

Matt then tells me I missed the point of the samurai and tea master story:

inally, he closes with a famous zen story, but he entirely misses the point of it. The story concerns a tea master, and a samurai, who get into a duel. The tea master prevails by bringing the same concentration to the duel that he brings to his tea ceremony. The point that Ted seems to miss here is that the tea master is a craftsman of the highest order. A master of cha-do (the way of tea) is able to transform the simple act of making and pouring a cup of tea into something transcendant by bringing to this simple act a clear mind, a good attitude, and years of patient, humble practice. Arguably he prevails because he has perfected his craft to a higher degree than the samurai has perfected his own. That is why he has earned the right to wear the garb of a samurai, and why he is able to face down his opponent.

Which, again, I find funny, because most Zen masters will tell you that the story--any Zen story, in fact--has no "definitive" meaning, but has meaning based on how you interpret it. (There are a few Zen parables that reinforce this point, but it gets a little meta to justify my understanding of a Zen story by quoting another Zen story.) How Matt chooses to interpret that parable is, of course, up to him. I choose to interpret the story thusly: the insulted samurai felt that his "earned sense of pride" at his sword mastery was insulted by the tea master--clearly no swordsman, as it says in the story--wore robes of a rank and honor that he had not earned. And clearly, the tea master was no swordsman. But what the tea master learned from his peer was not how to use his concentration and discipline to improve his own swordsmanship, but how to demonstrate that he had, in fact, earned a note of mastery through an entirely different discipline than the insulted samurai's. The tea master still has no mastery of the sword, but in his own domain, he is an expert. This was all the insulted samurai needed to see, that the badge of honor had been earned, and not just imposed by a capricious (and disrespectful) lord. Put a paintbrush and canvas into the hands of a house painter, and you get pretty much a mess--but put a spray painter in the hands of Leonardo, and you still get a mess. In fact, to really do the parable justice, we should see how much "craft" Matt can bring when asked to paint a house, because that's about how much relevance swordsmanship and house painting have in relationship to one another. (All analogies fail eventually, by the way, and we're probably reaching the boundaries of this one.)

Billy Hollis is a master with VB, far more than I ever will be; I know C++ far better than he ever will. I respect his abilities, and he, mine. There is no argument here. But more importantly, there are friends I've worked with in the past who are masters with neither VB nor C++, nor any other programming language, but chose instead to sink their time and energy into skiing, pottery, or being a fan of a television show. They chose to put their energies--energies the "craftsmen" seem to say should be put towards their programming--towards things that bring them joy, which happen to not be programming.

Which brings me to another refrain that came up over and over again: You criticize the craftsman, but then you draw a distinction between "craftsman" and "laborer". You're confusing (or confused). First of all, I think it important to disambiguate along two axes: those who are choosing to invest their time into learning to write better software, and those who are choosing to look at writing code as "just" a job as one axis, and along a second axis, the degree to which they have mastered programming. By your own definitions, "craftsmen", can one be early in your mastery of programming and still be a "craftsman"? Can one be a master bowler who's just picked up programming and be considered a "craftsman"? Is the nature of "craftsmanship" a measure of your skill, or is it your dedication to programming, or is it your dedication to something in your life, period? (Remember, the tea master parable says that a master C++ developer will see the master bowler and respect his mastery of bowling, even though he can't code worth a crap. Would you call him a "craftsman"?)

Frankly, I will say, for the record, that I think there are people programming who don't want to put a ton of time and energy into learning how to be better programmers. (I suspect that most of them won't ever read this blog, either.) They see the job as "just a job", and are willing to be taught how to do things, but aren't willing to go off and learn how to do them on their own. They want to do the best job they can, because they, like any human being, want to bring value to the world, but don't have that passion for programming. They want to come in at 9, do their job, and go home at 5. These are those whom I call "laborers". They are the "fisherman" in the following story:

The businessman was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The businessman complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied only a little while.

The businessman then asked why he didn't stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs. The businessman then asked, but what do you do with the rest of your time? The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos; I have a full and busy life, señor."

The businessman scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and I could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats; eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor and eventually open your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City where you would run your expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But señor, how long will this all take?" To which the businessman replied, "15-20 years." "But what then, señor?" The businessman laughed and said, "That's the best part! When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions." "Millions, señor? Then what?" The businessman said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."


What makes all of this (this particular subject, craftsmanship) particularly hard for me is that I like the message that craftsmanship brings, in terms of how you conduct yourself. I love the book Apprenticeship Patterns, for example, and think that anyone, novice or master, should read this book. I have taken on speaking apprentices in the past, and will continue to do so well into the future. The message that underlies the meme of craftsmanship--the constant striving to improve--is a good one, and I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you have adopted "craftsmanship" as a core value of yours, then please, by all means, continue to practice it! Myself, I choose to do so, as well. I have mentored programmers, I have taken speaking apprentices, and I strive to learn more about my craft by branching my studies out well beyond software--I am reading books on management, psychology, building architecture, and business, because I think there is more to software than just the choice of programming language or style.

But be aware that if you start telling people how you're living your life, there is an implicit criticism or expectation that they should be doing that, as well. And when you start criticizing other peoples' code as being "unelegant" or "unbeautiful" or "unclean", you'd better be able to explain your value system and why you judged it as so. Humility is a hard, hard path to tread, and one that I have only recently started to see the outlines of; I am guilty of just about every sin imaginable when it comes to this subject. I have created "elegant" systems that failed their original intent. I have criticized "ugly" code that, in fact, served the purpose well. I have bragged of my own accomplishments to those who accomplished a lot more than I did, or ever will. And I consider it amazing to me that my friends who've been with me since long before I started to eat my justly-deserved humble pie are still with me. (And that those friends are some amazing people in their own right.; if a man is judged by the company he keeps, then by looking around at my friends, I am judged to be a king.) I will continue to strive to be better than I am now, though, even within this discussion right now: those of you who took criticism with my post, you have good points, all of you, and I certainly don't want to stop you from continuing on your journeys of self-discovery, either.

And if we ever cross paths in person, I will buy you a beer so that we can sit down, and we can continue this discussion in person.

Published at DZone with permission of Ted Neward, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)