Thursday, March 12, 2009

What is this software craftmanship thing anyway?

There's a buzz in my tiny corner of the industry at the moment. "Software Craftmanship". But what is it exactly?

I for one am not sure. Currently it seems to be all things to all people, but with a common theme of quality running through it. Some think it's fairly hardline, others think it needs to be flexible and all-encompassing. But one thing it's not - it's not just about agile or lean processes and practices (although personally I think they are a significant step in the right direction). So what the hell is it? Here's an attempt at defining what it needs based on existing professional engineering and other disciplines that could be considered craftmanship (for example, carpentry, surgery, architecture/building and so on).

  • It needs a set of ethics. This is what keeps you honest and provides a structure on which you can base decisions. Ethics tell you when to walk away when you are being asked to compromise too far. They provide the line in the sand that you do not cross. In XP, these are the Values.

  • It needs a set of tools and techniques that are the generally accepted best way of doing something. Think about a stonemason, or cabinetmaker - they use specialist tools in specific ways. Also a surgeon has an array of specific techniques to handle different situations. Note that there is absolutely no reason why there should not be multiple ways to achieve the same results here. However, unfortunately for us the software industry is notorious for aggressively defending personal preference and style over and above effectiveness and quality so there are plenty of red herrings to remove.

  • It needs continuous learning. A master craftsman will always be experimenting with things, looking for new tools and techniques to add to the entire craft. Since these new techniques are outside the accepted practices, they can be carefully assessed in controlled conditions in much the same way that, say, a surgeon would try a new procedure with extra precautions, or a master stonemason would try something new on a cheaper, expendable offcut of stone first.

  • It needs apprenticeship. Beginners and journeymen need to teach and be taught. An apprenticeship model works extremely well for this - see something, do something, remember something. Plus by working alongside master craftsmen you learn the nuances that can never be documented.
Once the majority can agree on the values, principles and practices that fit these four things, then - and only then - can we really claim to be software craftsmen. Until then it's simply another forum flame war.

No comments: