The Eternal Journeyman

It seems like every “luminary” in the world of software development has chimed in on this one at some point, so why not one more, right? Sure, I’m not a famous “known name” in the software world. I’ve done some cool and important things, but you’ve probably never seen or used them, at least not personally. If you live in Ohio then you’ve definitely been a consumer of my code, but you’ve still never seen it. It’s invisible stuff running in multiple Ohio government agencies, quietly shuttling your information from place to place. If you have a concealed-carry license, parts of your background information totally passed through my code. And before you ask, no, I didn’t siphon any of it off.

I work on stuff that affects lots of people, but I’m not well known. So what do I have to offer to the conversation? What I have is another perspective, from a guy who aspires to the ideals of software craftsmanship, but has enough impostor syndrome to keep me humble, and certainly enough to stop me from declaring myself a “Master Craftsman” and telling you how to do things. Claiming the title of “Master Craftsman” actually flips your bozo bit pretty quickly in my head. I’m just a guy that writes code, and sometimes I share things with others.

I am not a master craftsman, and neither are you. Nor is anyone in our entire industry. How could we be when everything we know becomes obsolete every two years? That’s my point. That’s my perspective. I work in an industry where none of us are ever really going to truly “get there”. We will never achieve mastery.

We, as humans, have a lot of industries down to a science. We’ve been building actual physical buildings for millennia, and we’ve got that pretty much figured out, right? Every now and then someone comes up with some new high-tech composite material and shifts the landscape a bit. We develop large-scale computer modeling, C&C milling, thinner glass, and  suddenly our art museums start looking less like boxes and more like melty organic blobs. That’s just the skin though. The fundamental knowledge of how to safely prop up a structure and not impede the traffic flow within it hasn’t really changed that much. We’ve got the core science down, and we’ve had it down for generations.

Manufacturing, Automotive, Consumer Electronics, these are all industries that undergo constant evolution, but the core ideas of what we’re doing and how we do it are pretty much smoothed out. The rough edges have been sanded off, and the general “shape” of the industry doesn’t change that much. We get better at making chips smaller and smaller. We make more efficient CPUs by stacking more transistors in less space, but we don’t just throw out the transistor altogether and start using frob nodules instead. At least not yet. Some major shift will happen somewhere over the horizon and it will change how we do things, but for now it’s transistors and heatsinks.

Compare that to the software world. We’ve only been talking to computers since the 1960s. This industry is still in its infancy, and we’re changing our minds about the right way to do things on a daily basis. We don’t have as many languages in play as we used to, and the business world has largely settled on .Net, Java, and PHP as the main ways we get things done, but we still have these major tectonic shifts happening every now and then. The last big one was when everyone got all excited about functional languages and how they were going to change everything we do. Except they didn’t. They dominated our user group and convention topics for a year or so, changed how we do a few things out on the periphery of actual business, and then they faded out of the limelight. When’s the last time your local user group hosted an F# talk? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

And now it’s everything “in the cloud”. But which cloud? Azure? AWS? Should these things we’re putting in the cloud be containerized? Which container? Docker? Do we need Kubernetes? How do I even begin to pick one? What if I pick wrong? What happens if I advocate for building a client’s critical systems on top of Azure and then Microsoft loses interest and walks away like they’ve done with so many other things? Anyone remember Zune? Yeah… I have three or four of those. Windows Phones? Same thing. I have a drawer full of old Windows Phones. Microsoft changes directions like a crack-addled squirrel trying to cross a busy intersection. What if I’d told a client to build their front end on Silverlight? Now I’m stuck being the “Silverlight guy” while everyone else moves on to newer things.

Years ago, I noticed a pattern forming. Any new Microsoft technology that I personally got behind would get killed off. I am apparently the kiss of death for all things Microsoft; So much so that friends made me promise not to get a Hololens because they wanted it to be a thing. They still want it to be a thing… and it still isn’t. Maybe I should just go ahead and buy one just to put a bullet in its head once and for all. I’m frankly surprised that the Surface line is still around since I actually bought one of those. But I digress.

The point is that our industry is nowhere near settled on what we do. I’ve spent the last few years actively avoiding the front end of web applications because there’s still so much churn going on over there. Knockout, Angular, React, Ember, Vue… everyone wants to change the world of web applications, and I’ve tried to avoid the whole mess until the dust settles. It’s not that I’m jaded. I’ve just backed too many losing horses in the past and I’m experienced enough to know that, in all likelihood, none of these frameworks will emerge as the eventual winner, so I’m not hitching my wagon to any of them.

My prediction is that something far less revolutionary will come along. It will seem quiet and tame by comparison. It will make just enough sense that It will quietly take over as the boring but safe choice for actually getting stuff done in the same way that jQuery and Bootstrap became the de-facto tools in their areas. I also predict that someday we’ll look back on the chaos that was the front-end landscape of the early 21st century, and we’ll regret every single choice we made, no matter how right it seemed at the time.

Despite the metaphor that occasionally gets thrown around by leaders in our industry, this isn’t like Samurai in feudal Japan. You can’t just demonstrate a few katas at a new dojo (job) to easily establish your rank and standing because all of your katas are so two years ago. This is more like working for years to finally achieve your black belt in a particular style, only to suddenly find that your country is being invaded by foreigners from some strange new land that have a non-standard number of arms and a totally different center of gravity. Everything you know is wrong and you have to start all over again. You’re not a master anymore. You’re just a highly-experienced apprentice.


You know those old timey black and white films of men crashing their ill-conceived “flying machines”? We laugh at their idiocy, at the fact that they tried to fly without the most basic high-school-level understanding of aerodynamics and lift. What did they think they were doing? Yeah… Well that’s us. We have absolutely no idea what we’re doing. History will look back at our feeble efforts and laugh mercilessly at us.

In the midst of all this constant change, I refuse to believe that any of us can call ourselves master craftsmen. We are all journeymen at best, and will be for the rest of our careers. The only people who can call themselves “master” are those who keep doing the same thing for a significant period of time. They are the Fortran and Cobol programmers of the world. The ones who came out of retirement and commanded ridiculous salaries in the late ’90s preparing for Y2K because it was easier to dust them off and overpay them than it was to convince fresh, new developers to train up on skills that they’d be throwing away in a couple years time once the crisis was over.

Many of you are too young to remember when Y2K was the big scary monster that was about to bring everything crashing down. Evangelicals prepared themselves for the end times, and normally level-headed families stockpiled food and ammunition. We were expecting to wake up January 1st, 2000 with no power and no phones. Our banks were going to be on fire, and the fire trucks weren’t going to start. Violence and looting in the streets, dogs and cats living together, mass pandemonium. I was convinced that the phone system would crash, not because of the actual bug, but because we were going to simply overload the thing when everyone phoned their Mom first thing in the morning on 1/1/1 to make sure everything was okay and vice versa.

But none of that happened, and you want to know why? Because there were armies of true masters of an obsolete craft out there that scrambled to rewrite the world in time to save us all. These were men and women who still held a mastery over COBOL long after most of them had been forced to retire or move on to new and unfamiliar languages and idioms, and in that regard, they were not modern masters. In their new roles, and in their new languages, they were just like the rest of us, scrambling to keep up. But they were masters at their particular game. A game no-one else was playing anymore. They were Samurai. They were Jedi. And for the last year of the twentieth century, they were gods.

Someday, our great great grandchildren may have our industry well and truly sorted out once and for all, and maybe they’ll be able to call themselves master craftsmen, but not us. No way. We need to come to terms with the fact that only the very core motivations of our industry are settled. The general approach has been worked out, but not the specifics of implementation. The implementation is our best flailing attempt to build something for a client using the primitive stone tools we have available at the moment. We’re just coming into the bronze age here, and we think we see, ever so vaguely on the dim and foggy horizon, what the future looks like, and we’re still probably wrong about that. Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Natural Language, all of that is becoming commonplace. You can’t attend a software conference without tripping over an ML presenter these days, but are we really going to use it for the day-to-day business of moving money around and balancing accounts? I don’t know… maybe?

So should we give up on the idea of Craftsmanship? Should we cut corners, and just do “whatever it takes” to get something (anything) shipped? Do we give up on getting things “right” and just get them done? I mean… why bother if we’re just going to throw it all out in the next big rewrite anyway, right?

Wrong. We still need to be taking  pride in what we do, and we need to leave behind code that the next guy can understand and improve on. That is how we learn and move forward. We still need to build to the best of our abilities, even though we know that someone will roll their eyes at our code in the future. With any luck, that person is just us, and the thought in our head will be “What was I thinking?” and not “What idiot wrote this?” We need to feel good today about the code we’re writing, even if we probably won’t feel the same way about it two years from now. If there’s one thing we can learn from the other industries, it’s this:

If it’s worth building, it’s worth building well.

Notice that I don’t say “correctly” or “right” here because whatever we do will inevitably be wrong in a few years time, but it needs to be as correct as we can get it for now. The better you build it, the longer it lasts. Do you think your grandchildren will be fighting over who gets your Ikea desk after you die? What about Great grandpa’s handmade, roll-top writing desk with the white oak and black walnut compass rose inlay? They’re the same thing, right?

Craftsmanship is not a destination, it’s a journey. You will probably never reach true mastery in your lifetime. But that’s not the point, is it? Who wants to be “done” anyway. Where’s the fun in that? I mean, sure, I’d like the occasional “vacation project” where it’s all stuff I already know, and I get to feel super smart for a few months, but I’ll always find that the world has moved on while I was enjoying my sense of mastery.

When someone asks me “What do you want to be doing in five years”, my answer is always the same; “This, but better”.

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