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Thou shalt not put code on a piedestal - Code is a tool, no more, no less

“Write great code and everything else becomes easier” is what Paul Pagel believes in. That´s his version of an adage by Brian Marick he cites: “treat code as an end, not just a means.” And he concludes: “My post-Agile world is software craftsmanship.”

I wonder, if that´s really the way to go. Will “simply” writing great code lead the software industry into the light? He´s alluding to the philosopher Kant who proposed, a human beings should never be treated as a means, but always as an end. But should we transfer this ethical statement into the world of software? I doubt it.


Reason #1: Human beings are categorially different from code. They are autonomous entities who need to find a way of living happily together. To Kant it seemed this goal could only be reached if nobody (ab)used a human being for his/her purposes. Because using a human being, i.e. treating it as a means, would contradict the fundamental autonomy and freedom of human beings. People should hold up a symmetric view of their relationships: Since nobody wants to be (ab)used, nobody should (ab)use anybody else. If you want to be treated decently, with respect, in accordance with your own free will - which means as an end - then do the same to other people.

Code is dead, it´s a product, it´s a tool for people to reach their goals. No company spends any money on code other than to save money or earn money in the long run. Code is not a puppy. Enterprises do not commission software development to just feel good in its company. Code is not a buddy. Code is a slave, if you will. A mechanical slave, a non-tangible robot. Code is a tool, is a tool. And if we start to treat it differently, if we elevate its status unduely… I guess that will contort our relationship in a contraproductive way.

Please get me right: Just because something is “just a tool”, “just a product” does not mean we should not be careful while designing, building, using it. Right to the contrary. We should be very careful when writing code – but not for the code´s sake! We should be careful because we respect our customers who are fellow human beings who should be treated as an end.

If we are careless, neglectful, ignorant when producing code on their behalf, then we´re using them. Being sloppy means you´re caring more for yourself that for your customer. You´re then treating the customer as a means to fulfill some of your own needs. That´s plain unethical behavior.


Reason #2: The focus should always be on your purpose, not on any tool. But if code is treated as an end, then the focus is on the code. That might sound right, because where else should be your focus as a software developer? But, well, I´d say, your focus should be on delivering value to your customer. Because in the end your customer does not care if you write a single line of code. She just wants her problem to be solved. Solving problems is the purpose of any contractor.

Code must be treated just as a means, a tool we know how to handle very well. But if we´re really trying to be craftsmen then we should be conscious about exactly that and act ethically. That means we must never be so focused on our tool as to be unable to suggest better solutions to the problems of our customers than code.


I´m all with Paul when he urges us to “Write great code”. Sure, if you need to write code, then by all means do so. Write the best code you can think of – and then try to improve it. Paul has all the best intentions when he signs Brians “treat code as an end” - but as we all know: “The road to hell is paved with best intentions” ;-)

Yes, I can imagine a “hell of code focus”. In fact, I don´t need to imagine it, I´m seeing it quite often. Because code hell is whereever two developers stand together and are so immersed in talking about all sorts of coding tricks, design patterns, code smells, technologies, platforms, tools that they lose sight of the big picture.

Talking about TDD or SOLID or refactoring is a sign of consciousness – relative to the “cowboy coders” view of the world. But from yet another point of view TDD, SOLID, and refactoring are just cures for ailments within a system. And I fear, if “Writing great code” is the only focus or the main focus of software development, then we as an industry lose the ability to see that.

Focus draws a line around something, it defines a horizon for perceptions and thinking. So if we focus on code our horizon ends where “the land of code” ends. I don´t think that should be our professional attitude.


So what about Software Craftsmanship as the next big thing after Agility?

I think Software Craftsmanship has an important message for all software developers and beyond. But to make it the successor of the Agility movement seems to miss a point.

Agility never claimed to solve all software development problems, I´d say. So to blame it for having missed out on certain aspects of it is wrong. If I had to summarize Agility in one word I´d say “Value”. Agility put value for the customer back in software development. Focus on delivering value early and often – that´s Agility´s mantra. All else follows from that.

And I ask you: Is that obsolete? Is delivering value not hip anymore? No, sure not. That´s our very purpose as software developers. So how can Agility become obsolete and need to be replaced?

We need to do away with this “either/or”-thinking. It´s either Agility or Lean or Software Craftsmanship or whatnot.

Instead we should start integrating concepts and movements. Think “both/and”. Think Agility plus Software Craftsmanship plus Lean plus whatnot. We don´t neet to tear down anything from a piedestal and replace it with a new idol. Instead we should do away with piedestals and arrange whatever is helpful is a circle. Then we can turn to concepts, movements for whatever they are best.

After 10 years of Agility we should be able to identify what it was good at – and keep that. Keep Agility around and add whatever Agility was lacking or never concerned with. Add whatever is at the core of Software Craftsmanship. Add whatever is at the core of Lean etc.

But don´t call out the age of Post-Agility. Because it better never will end. Because once we start to lose Agility´s core we´re losing focus of the customer.

Print | posted on Saturday, January 8, 2011 11:31 AM | Filed Under [ Thinking outside of the box ]


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