What is a Craftsman?

What is a Craftsman?

Ben Voss

June 10, 2013

“Well, why are you afraid to say that you are a craftsman to other people?”

A friend was recounting his discussion over beers with some other co-workers the night before.

“I’m not sure, it sounds stuck-up. And other people wouldn’t understand what the title really means.”

The more he recounted his questioning the faster he talked; and his hands made larger movements in support of his energy.

“And I kept asking myself 'Why'. Why do we feel like we only say craftsman around each other? Why don’t we say it to whomever asks?”, my friend said.

I usually say I’m a programmer to other people, I thought to myself, somewhat guilty-feeling in the front of this questioning.

“People would probably think I’m stuck up.” I said outloud, both answering myself and softly throwing a line out, hoping my friend will bite.

“Right, its because nobody really knows a good definition for craftsman” my friend stated.

As many of you already know, 8th Light has “Software Craftsmen” instead of merely programmers. This term usually leads to some complicated internal debates. The feeling that one lacks humility, that one doesn’t deserve a special name or arrogance are common.

In this post I’d like to discuss why we feel that way, when we should call ourselves craftsmen and why others often take offence to the term. Starting with a good dose of definition will help remove the guilt for craftsmen discussing the term personally, and help a larger social acceptance of the name, and what it implies.

Its about quality.

I was at a meetup with a very spammy soundy name (withholding to protect the innocent) a few months ago. Essentially, it would fall in line with a “How to quadruple the growth of your business in 2 days!” type of group.

“You know, 8th Light does a great marketing job with the whole craftsman thing.”

A startup marketer was enlightening me on how 8th Light does things.

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“Well, the reason you call yourselves craftsmen is for marketing. You’re not programmers, you’re craftsmen. Its a good business decision.”

I felt a pang of anger. He didn’t get it. But how could he -- he doesn’t know 8th Light. I’ll just explain it, and I did see his point.

“I agree. It is deft marketing. But the name wasn’t chosen for marketing reasons. Craftsman, and the approach to quality that it means, is a company culture. Its what drives most of our decisions. Any marketing value from how it drives our culture is purely a beneficial by-product.”

My words didn’t even register.

“No, its really about marketing.”

Huh? And then he took a softer tone.

“But it really is clever.”

The feeling he gave me was that he’d be comfortable calling his employees craftsmen and talking about quality without delivering a product to back it up.

Marketing is about illuminating truths specific to solving someone’s needs. If you put forward a message specifically to solve a personal need, and you can’t do it, you’re really nothing more than a scam artist.

Think about the stereotypical programmer. Mountain dew, twinkies, work day from 10pm to 4am. Work is full of bugs and they are all about 1337 hacking.

Why do we all need to be that way? Isn’t it important that we are well-dressed, there before our clients in the morning, take offense at bugs in our work, that we teach and are kind and courteous to whom we work with?

To me, craftsmanship is nothing more than behaving in a manner that ensures quality, regardless of field. We just try to do it for software.

But if its important to act with quality, why do many people feel like calling themselves “craftsman” is arrogant, or unjustified?

Reason 1: Stuck-up

The first reason craftsmen I know don’t say it outside of the industry is because it sounds stuck-up. “We work for quality”. Its true, many people are judgemental and condescending to others that strive for quality. Many times that person lashes out because they are intimidated and envious of someone else working hard to do better work.

Also, a programmer may want to do quality work, but their environment won’t allow it. Many companies don’t care about clean code. It can be frustrating to be a developer constrained by working conditions or company culture.

In those cases, look at those constraints as an opportunity and see what you can actually do to promote quality. Quality doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Starting to write tests, or clean code, or deliver according to commitments can be done on a small scale, but still in line with a quality approach. What is something you can do to promote quality at your place of work, no matter how small?

Reason 2: Not Embracing the Concept

It is possible that some who call themselves craftsmen simply don’t care about quality, or do so only partially. Like a knock-off product, their defects show under use.

Craftsman is a name given by example of work. Just because one calls themselves craftsman doesn’t mean they strive for quality in their work.

Its a difficult concept to personally embrace. Can’t I do quality work without a special name? In most cases, yes, but why are you reluctant?

Most of the time, that reluctance comes from the fact that such a personal branding will paint you as a target, and you may be unsure that you can always act “better” than your counterparts.

But its not so much about always being better, and more about always trying improve. Learn, be courteous, be professional and embrace quality. Craftsman is not always about being better or more skilled than anyone else you come across. But it does imply that you will always improve with humility.

Some clarification

Quality is a competitive advantage in any industry. It is smart to build a quality-driven culture. Its important to take pride and distinction in the name. And its important to be pragmatic about it.

There is no need to have to say craftsman all the time. There’s a good quote from ‘The War of Art’ by Steven Pressfield. Hes talking about the “Muse” -- the creative power, and the power that pushes you to better things -- and says: “...share it with another comrade-in-arms, if sharing it will help or encourage that comrade in his or her own endeavors”.

If another is an admirer of quality, share the culture with them and inspire one another.

And that’s the crux of what craftsman means to me: a discipline to quality. That’s all there is to it. It doesn’t mean I’m better than you, its not a marketing ploy. Its simply a standard for how work -- and a work culture -- should be done.