Software Developement as a Craft - 'The Craftsman' by Richard Sennett

I was listening to the BBC Radio 4 social science documentary strand Thinking Allowed earlier in the week (from my backlog of DAB radio recordings) and they were discussing a new book 'The Craftsman' by Richard Sennett.

The book deals with the concept of learning a craft, as opposed to the acquisition of pure academic skills. It dealt with the sort of manual crafts that you might expect to be included, such as jewellers, wood workers, etc.  To my surprise Richard Sennett mentioned that he has spent a lot of time studying the craft of software development as part of his research.

The surprise is to hear the recognition of software development as a craft, not something obtainable by passing certification courses, but by practical real world experience. Richard Sennett reckons it takes 10,000 hours to become a skilled carpenter or musician, and by inference a skilled software developer too. That's about FIVE years of software development before you're a true craftsmen.

Hallelujah !! I was taken back to my sister-in-law telling me that she had 'decided' to quit being an actuary and was going to become a 'C++ programmer' and could I recommend a book so she could learn it over the next few months ready for applying for jobs. There was a complete lack of any realisation that you software development might require an aptitude for the discipline of software development or that it might require experience to really become proficient.  The later is mentioned by Richard Sennett, in that is important to make mistakes in order to become skilled in a craft. You are unlikely to simply read up on a craft and get it right first time. Try telling the standard line manager or project manager that mistakes are 'good' and will increase the knowledge of the team.

The only 'non craft' area of software development might be seen to be the lack of touching or coming into contact with a material. In my case, the start of any software development is nearly always a paper based exercise. Out comes my trusty ink pen (yep, ink pen, Lamy Safari, complete with blotting paper) on spiral bound notebooks, scribbling flowcharts, workflows and database schemas onto A3 or massive A2 sheets. Let's not forget my favourite tool, a decent sized white board and four whiteboard markers.

So here is to software development as a craft - a fantastic intellectual and creative endeavour that I personally find exciting and satisfying (although not always when it's Visual Studio 2003).

Ref: A meeting between Laurie Taylor (presenter of Thinking Allowed) and Richard Sennett can be found at the New Humanist web site.

Print | posted on Monday, March 31, 2008 3:52 AM

Comments on this post

# re: Software Developement as a Craft - 'The Craftsman' by Richard Sennett

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"10,000 hours ... That's about FIVE years of software development before you're a true craftsmen."

i.e. 40 solid programming hours per week for 5 years? Really? Do you know many that achieve that?

I think a regular 20 hours per week would already be great.
Left by anon on Apr 02, 2008 9:35 AM

# re: Software Developement as a Craft - 'The Craftsman' by Richard Sennett

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Good point - that was a very optimistic daily work rate, unless web surfing/facebook/twittering counts as work ... no - it doesn't. :-)
Left by Liam Westley on Apr 02, 2008 7:48 PM

# re: Software Developement as a Craft - 'The Craftsman' by Richard Sennett

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Brooks in the classic "The Mythical Man Month" recognizes software development as a craft.
Left by Joe Niederberger on Apr 06, 2008 3:11 PM

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