Observing a Craftsman

Observing a Craftsman

Paul Pagel

November 17, 2008

My path in becoming a craftsman was not through conventional academics. I did get a Bachelor degree in Computer Science. During those years of learning, I was taught a lot about how to learn and how to communicate, but I learned nothing about how to practice my craft of software.

I learned how TCP/IP works, how registers are able to do math. All of this is interesting and some of it is useful for a broader view of computer interactions as a whole.

None, however, taught me about developing software as a craft. I did some programming, which is a prerequisite for any kind of software development.

“Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but once cannot communicate and teach it.” —Hermann Hesse

My real learning began after school. Learning software as a craft was not done in books. It took being around journeymen and master craftsmen to learn the way they think. Observing their idiosyncrasies and approach to a problem is part of the learning.

Much of the wisdom is tacit. For me it is watching the way my mentor approaches a story. The way a craftsman sees a problem and digests it, without hurry, and finds a satisfactory solution.

Then they write code, introducing faults and fallacies the original solution could not have predicted. Finally, a meticulous approach to improve each fault in the code.

The whole time demanding perfection, without ever hitting it. This is the good code I strive to write. I can’t learn that by looking at a solution.

These are observations of behavior and intent, not of actions. For example, I have read about Test Driven Development, and it has made my job easier. For awhile after I learned it, I wrote a lot of simple assertions, almost reverse engineering my production code in my head to figure out what the test code would look like.

However, the practice itself became ten times more valuable when I saw my mentor use the tests to design their API. They would say things like “what do I want this to do” or “that doesn’t feel right, lets rename the method to this”. Those insights into the thought process provide me with the experiential learning it takes to further improve my craft.

When I started thinking about TDD in a similar manner, it allows me to clean up my code and know it still works, refactor my code into easily extendible solutions, and it gives me the confidence to experiment with the aesthetics of my code. I couldn’t fully learn that from books alone.

This is why it is so important to apprentice as a software developer. There are many things about development that I only learned through watching the behaviors and actions of the craftsmen I admire.

To me, these are the things that open up the software world to gain wisdom. For example, to be a better developer is not to learn a new language, but to have the wisdom to learn and understand any computer language, which requires you to learn new languages all the time.

Paul Pagel

Chairman, Founder, and President

Paul Pagel founded 8th Light in 2006, and has been a driving force in the software development community ever since. He has grown 8th Light from a small consultancy into a brand that is recognized by software developers worldwide.