What Software Craftsmanship Means to Me

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Why do we in software dev ask permission to improve tooling or improve the code? Does your landscape firm ask permission to sharpen blades? – Troy Tuttle via twitter

I know its very much an in vogue thing these days to call one’s self a software craftsman, but I’ve been doing it for a while now. Not because I’m an arrogant snob (although I’m sure that many see me that way Smile). No, instead, because to me, craftsmanship represents what has been missing from our industry.

We like to pretend we’re engineers. In fact, my employer thinks I’m a Technical Lead Software Engineer. I’ve resisted this title all of my career. There is no formality, no cohesive body of knowledge, none of the other trappings of engineering in software development. I don’t think we’ll get there anytime soon, either. We’ve been building software for a bit over a half a century. In the Western World, engineers have been building bridges and marvelous structures since the Romans, the Greeks, even back to the Egyptians. Thousands of years ago. Even on Internet time, we have a lot of catching up to do.

I’m not a programmer, either. That’s extremely limiting. I do more than just sling out some code. I’ve liked the title Developer. I think it represents what we do. We do whatever it takes to develop good software. Whether that’s writing code, drawing diagrams on the whiteboard, discussing the best ORM in the hallway, executing a test plan – that’s what we do.

To me, the Software Craftsmanship movement is the next phase in that evolution. Its about refusing to compromise our principles without a full discussion of the consequences. Sure, I’ll crank out that feature in half the time I told you it would take. But when we come back to add to it next release, it will take that time you cut from my budget just to get it to the starting point. And that can be fine.

That’s where craftsmanship has been taken too far. At the end of the day, we’re paid to ship software. If the code underneath that shiny UI is total crap, but the application does what it needs to, we’re successful. There’s nothing wrong with that. As long as its acknowledged that the necessary structure to take that application to the next level is not there. The problem is, someone will say that we only just need to add this one feature, and then we can take the time to fix the plumbing.

But someday never comes. Or it comes years later, when its clear to everyone that the current architecture is holding us back. Only then somebody decides we need to fix things. And so we undertake a re-write. Which takes longer than anyone ever budgets, because the requirements are never well specified – its always, just make it do what it did before. And add these 5 features while you’re at it.

Maybe the first version is based on a solid architecture. The code is well written and even obeys all of our coding standards. Its been peer reviewed or maybe even pair programmed. But you don’t have any automated tests: no unit tests (or maybe a paltry 10-30% coverage), no feature/functional/acceptance tests, no automated UI tests. So as you move along, you make changes that ultimately break some existing functionality, and nobody discovers it. Until “integration testing”, which is another failure condition. Or worse, there never was even a manual test case to cover the regression and the defect isn’t found until you are in the field, or the web site has gone live. There are a myriad of ways to cut corners on software…

Software Craftsmanship means standing up for solid software. It means only allowing shortcuts to be taken when the stakeholders understand the consequences. Taking on technical debt only with the full understanding that you are doing so. Its important to not stand in the way of shipping software with debt as long as it’s a conscious business decision. It could make or break the company. But remember that unless the company is prepared to pay the extra costs associated with that debt down the road, that could also break the company.

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