Love of Craft

My wife is a trained Ringling Brothers Clown College Clown.

Clowning is a difficult profession. It doesn’t receive much respect. It’s hard work. Physical comedy can easily wreck your health as quickly as it drives you broke. Material success means getting to work.

But clowning is a craft with roots as old as performance itself. True practitioners bring great discipline and joy to their work. A talented clown relates to their audience with the spontaneity and innate intelligence of a child while employing a mastery of performance honed by years of training. Good clowning is surprising, stunning, human and hilarious.

However, the level of talent, skill and training vary to extremes. There is no official apprenticeship process. When people think of clowns, they’re often thinking about amateurs who’ve had very little exposure to the work of veteran performers.

It’s easy to be a frighteningly bad clown. Many amateurs paint both the top and bottom of their mouth with a broad stripe of red makeup. They turn their character’s mouth into a gaping maw large enough to devour a child’s head.

If you ever get a chance to hang out with experienced clowns you’ll find out how embarrassed they are by bad performers with horrifying makeup and costume, few skills and little respect for the history and rituals of clowning.

I’d say the difference between what I do and what my wife does is that software developers earn a lot more money and are a lot less fun to watch. Still, what I do is also a craft. To do it well requires aptitude, discipline and apprenticeship. Just as in clowning, there are common mistakes perpetrated by bad or inexperienced developers.

Similar to my wife’s clown college class mates, I feel great pride in my craft and in those who take it up with talent and integrity. I also feel frustration, disappointment and a little outrage at peers who strive for less.

Bullshit


I just read Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit.

According to Mr. Frankfurt, bullshit is different from lying or falsity. The liar is aware that something is true or false and acknowledges the value of truth by intentionally masking it.

A bullshitter shows a complete disregard for truth. Factual accuracy and shared principles are largely irrelevant. What they want you to think about them is everything. A bullshitter bullshits instead of some harder work like physical effort or disciplined thinking.

Bullshit is a greater danger to our world than lying.

It’s a good essay!

The 2007 Edelman Trust Barometer indicates world wide that technology is one of the most trusted industries and entertainment/media one of the least.

As someone whose career straddles both industries, I find those results challenging. What is the basis of our trust in the technology sector? Edelman concludes that technology is seen as forward looking, providing value and not saddled with things like environmental concerns. Whereas media is wrapped up in celebrity.

With all the obsolete hardware, used batteries, unecessary packaging, raw materials required for manufacture, and global transportation the tech sector drives it’s a stretch to say we don’t contribute to environmental degradation. The technology industry also contains its fare share of inflated product development claims and other anti-competitive practices as well as supply and customer service issues. However, in the cliche’ of evil empires there is a sense in these things that technology firms believe they are doing right or, at least, know they are doing wrong.

Perhaps consumers agree with Mr. Frankfurt. They’d rather have technologists lie to them than celebrities bullshit them?

Summer Stock

One college summer, I worked at a small theater on the Mississippi river. It was a drought year. I remember it raining once the whole time I was there. The river flowed way below its usual level and ran dirty. The corn crop was devastated.

The theater was within miles of a huge pet food rendering plant. When the humidity allowed a breeze everything smelled quite literally like death warmed over.

And then the shad flies hatched. Lumbering insects that flew just well enough for one night of frantic bashing into things and mating. The next morning, their bodies covered the ground like gravel. I crunched my way from my apartment to the theater.

All this proved an appropriate backdrop.

The theater was a paddle wheel tug cemented to the bank of the river. The repertoire had been selected by the parks department. It consisted of fifty year-old musicals which required large choruses and performers who could sing, dance and act. The theater didn’t pay well and had no reputation. So our company consisted of twelve teens and twenty-somethings. About fifty less people than the larger musicals required. As for triple threats, some of us could passably act and sing or sing and dance.

And so we shambled our way through the summer – performers versus shows. Each evening or matinee without fail the shows kicked our ass. The artistic injury alone should have knocked that tugboat loose to immediately and permanently submerge in the river mud.

And yet, matinee or evening, audiences were entertained. They laughed. They applauded. They even waited outside to thank the performers.

What does this mean? What should I take from this experience?

We must strive to be better at what we do, to do our jobs well as we see it, without concern for recognition.

Mastering craft towards a beneficial end is a noble human aspiration. It is a good in the world. Like all attempts at doing or being good we cannot expect others around us to acknowledge us for it or even to recognize the difference even if they benefit from the effort.

Thankfully, I’ve moved on in my life. I’m a manager, a software executive, and a father but like the hopelessly miscast kid that I was, I still struggle to improve.

Irashaimase

manekineko
[my grandmother, Aoki Nobu’s manekineko in front of a ceramic cat painted by my daughter, Miya]

In January, I had the privilege of meeting, John Maeda. One of the perks of working for Gerry Laybourne is the circle of associates she can bring to a wicked problem.

By coincidence, Mr. Maeda and I both grew up in Seattle. My mom is Japanese and I remember visiting his family’s Star Tofu Bakery. The whole Maeda family worked together to make the tofu the authentic Japanese way. Served as hiyayakko, chilled and fresh, it was the best tofu I’ve ever tasted.

In a grand display of traditional Japanese customer service, John described how his father would open the door for his customers as they arrived and again as they left.

This image struck Gerry as a deep truth her company should strive for in its relations to its customers.

As my team works on a consumer software initiative for Gerry, we need to embrace the guiding principle that our work is all for the end user. Business value derives from serving their needs. We have tried to embrace this principle by using our agile practices to rally around our product owner’s vision, testing our software with prospective end users and listening to them. Feedback from prospective users has changed both our feature set and our release roadmap.

In how we approach our customers we must always welcome them with courtesy, listen to them respectfully, serve them as best we can and thank them on the way out.

Mr. Maeda’s observations about Oxygen.

About

I’ve been working in IT for fourteen years and developing software for eleven.

My first development job was in a startup working alone and crashing for a deadline. Classic code and fix. I was pretty successful at it. I generally delivered on time. Often through sheer force of will. My big weakness was not reaching out to learn from other developers. A sure sign of a new or just bad self-taught coder is that they bang away at a problem like no one has ever solved it before. I’m embarrassed by some of the old code that has my name on it. Luckily, I wasn’t a cobol developer so all that work is long since trashed.

As I moved on to larger companies, I suffered under well-intentioned but corrosive attempts at waterfall. Craig Larman’s Agile & Iterative Development has a great description of how these attempts at perfectable planning and design are based on a misinterpretation of W.W. Royce’s writings.

Some of these projects were successful but the process prized simple agreement over trust. At it’s worst it created false hierarchies which hid incompetence and fetishized heroics. I was burning out. My friends were quitting. As if that wasn’t bad enough, even our success often fit Mike Cohn’s description of delivering the wrong software on time and on budget.

Meaningful products can emerge from horrible process. But a way of working that tears down talented people’s desire to work is tragic. To repeatedly participate in this is to sap the world of it’s limited supply inspiration, creativity and joy. This is evil. Now that I have authority, my main goal is to avoid this evil.

About seven years ago, I took my first training from Stephen McConnell’s Construx. Stephen McConnell inspires me. He is open to different practices, sets high standards for performance, and champions a code of ethics for our profession.

Over time I learned some techniques for effective iterative planning, risk management, and estimation. I learned how to work with others to deliver quality software. Through Earned Value Planning, regular inspection points and risk lists we built transparency into our practices. With realistic schedules we were able to maintain a reasonable work-life balance.

Still, the weakness I saw in my team and in my leadership style was relying way to heavily on the abilities and day to day motivation of individuals. I had to manage the project. My best developer had to work on it. If one of us had a bad day the project might grind to a halt. Our whole wasn’t adding up to the talents of the individuals.

It took me a while to really grok that excellence isn’t about adopting a shared set of practices. It’s about rallying around a shared set of values. I shifted from mentoring my team on how I did things to a conversation about why we do what we do.

We all want to make a contribution, we want to deliver business value for our employer, we want to be proud of our work, we want to learn, we want to be honest, we want time for our family’s, friends and outside interests.

Over the last four years, we have adopted coding practices and a management style that supported our values. Specifically, Extreme Programming (XP) and Scrum. My recent focus has been on the management side. My short list of thought leaders is Alistair Cockburn, Mike Cohn, Ken Schwaber, and Jeff Sutherland.