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Engineering or Craftsmanship

Having gone through a computer science program at a school that required many engineering courses such as mechanical engineering, fluid dynamics, and electrical engineering as part of the core curriculum, I have a good appreciation of the differences between classic engineering work and computer science. One of the other AKF partners attending this same program along with me and we often debate whether our field should be considered an engineering discipline or not.

Jeff Atwood posted recently about how floored he was reading Tom DeMarco’s article in IEEE Software, where Tom stated that he has come to the conclusion that “software engineering is an idea that whose time has come and gone.” Tom DeMarco is one of the leading contributors on software engineering practices and has written such books as Controlling Software Projects: Management, Measurement, and Estimation, in which it’s first line is the famously quoted “You can’t control what you can’t measure.” Tom has come to the conclusion that:

For the past 40 years, for example, we’ve tortured ourselves over our inability to finish a software project on time and on budget. But as I hinted earlier, this never should have been the supreme goal. The more important goal is transformation, creating software that changes the world or that transforms a company or how it does business….Software development is and always will be somewhat experimental.

Jeff concludes his post with this statement, “…control is ultimately illusory on software development projects. If you want to move your project forward, the only reliable way to do that is to cultivate a deep sense of software craftsmanship and professionalism around it.”

All this reminded me of a post that Jeffrey Zeldman made about design management in which he states:

The trick to great projects, I have found, is (a.) landing clients with whom you are sympatico, and who understand language, time, and money the same way you do, and (b.) assembling teams you don’t have to manage, because everyone instinctively knows what to do.

There seems to be a theme among these thought leaders that you cannot manage your way into building great software but rather you must hone software much like a brew-master does for a micro-brew or a furniture-maker does for a piece of furniture. I suspect the real driver behind this notion of software craftsmanship is that it if you don’t want to have to actively manage projects and people you need to be highly selective in who joins the team and limit the size of the team. You must have management and process in larger organizations, no matter how professional and disciplined the team. There is likely some ratio of professionalism and size of team where if you fall below this your projects breakdown without additional process and active management. As in the graph below, if all your engineers are apprentices or journeymen and not master craftsmen they would be lower on the craftsmanship axis and you could have fewer of them on your team before you required some increased process or control.

Continuing with the microbrewery example, you cannot provide the volume and consistency of product for the entire beer drinking population of the US with four brewers in a 1,000 sq ft shop. You need thousands of people with management and process. The same goes for large software projects, you eventually cannot develop and support the application with a small team.

But wait you say, how about large open source projects? Let’s take Wikipedia, perhaps the largest open project that exists. Jimbo Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia states “…it turns out over 50% of all the edits are done by just .7% of the users – 524 people. And in fact the most active 2%, which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits.” Considering there are almost 3 million English articles in Wikipedia, this means each team working on a article is very small, possibly a single person.

Speaking of Wikipedia, one of those 524 people defines software engineer as “a person who applies the principles of software engineering to the design, development, testing, and evaluation of the software and systems that make computers or anything containing software, such as chips, work.” To me this is too formulaic and doesn’t describe accurately the application of style, aesthetics, and pride in one’s work. I for one like the notion that software development is as much craftsmanship as it is engineering and if that acknowledgement requires us to give up the coveted title of engineer so be it. But I can’t let this desire to be seen as a craftsman obscure the concept that the technology organization has to support the business as best as possible. If the business requires 750 engineers then there is no amount of proper selection or craftsmanship that is going to replace control, management, measurement, and process.

Perhaps not much of a prophecy but I predict the continuing divergence among software development organizations and professionals. Some will insist that the only way to make quality software is in small teams that do not require management nor measurement while others will fall squarely in the camp of control, insisting that any sizable project requires too many developers to not also require measurements. The reality is yes to both, microbrews are great but consumers still demand that a Michelob purchased in Wichita taste the same as it does in San Jose. Our technological world will be changed dramatically by a small team of developers but at the same time we will continue to run software on our desktops created by armies of engineers.

What side of the argument do you side with engineer or craftsman?


Comments RSS TrackBack 6 comments

  • No Such Thing As a Software Engineer | AKF Partners Blog

    in July 24th, 2009 @ 10:59

    […] Contact « Engineering or Craftsmanship […]


  • 97 Things - Book Review | AKF Partners Blog

    in March 15th, 2010 @ 07:25

    […] tossed my hat into the ring of debate of whether software development is a craft or an engineering discipline, I was thrilled to see essays such as Neal Ford’s “Testing Is the Engineering Rigor of […]


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