Learning a craft

During my attendance at Dev8D last week, I used the time to start pulling together some ideas I’ve been knocking around for a few months now. Most of the projects I’ve helped set up or led over the last three years have involved working closely with developers working in higher education and ever since JISCPress, we’ve been growing a culture where student developers, either on bursaries, employed part-time or full-time recent graduates (i.e. their first ‘proper job’) are core contributors to the project. My point here is that through these projects I have been able to observe how young hackers learn their craft and make the transition from a formal education in Computer Science to learning on the job (i.e. apprenticeship).


DevXS http://devxs.org

I use the word ‘craft’ deliberately. I think our work is much more closely aligned with craftsmanship than with engineering but I was unsure how to articulate this until I read Pete McBreen’s Software Craftsmanship. McBreen argues that a focus on craftsmanship is to return to the roots of software development:

Good software developers have always understood that programming is a craft skill. Regardless of the amount of arcane and detailed technical knowledge that a person has, in the end, application development comes down to feel and experience.

McBreen distinguished software craftsmanship from software engineering and computer science, not as their opposites but as a different tradition “that happily coexists with and benefits from science and engineering.” He compares the software craftsman to the blacksmith, both of whom transcend science and engineering and benefit from improvements in their tools, materials and understanding. For McBreen, GNU/Linux is an example of software craftsmanship that thrives due to the dedication, skill and craft of the people who contribute to the development of the operating system.

‘Software engineering’ was born out of a so-called ‘software crisis’, identified at a NATO conference in 1968. It was determined that the way out of that crisis was to apply an engineering approach to large scale state of the art defence projects. Since that time, argues McBreen, “the needs of the US Department of Defence have dominated the conversation about software engineering.”

software engineering is not all that relevant to many projects. Software engineering was created to solve the problems of really large groups working on multiyear projects. Most modern software development, however, is done in relatively small teams.

Not surprisingly, the practise of software craftsmanship is often allied with agile development, which emphasises the human aspects of software development, the creative and variable processes involved in creating software that meets human needs. Both share a concern with quality and both encourage continual reflective critique of one’s work in order to improve the software and oneself. In his book on Crystal Clear, for example, Alistair Cockburn identifies ‘reflective improvement’ and ‘osmotic communication’ as two of the three minimum requirements for a Crystal Clear project. In practice, reflective improvement refers to workshops and end-of-iteration discussion about how the work is going and how it might be improved. Osmotic communication refers to how flows of information between developers should be unobstructed by locked doors, walls and corridors. It’s about sitting developers in the same or adjacent rooms so that they absorb information about the project with as few barriers as possible. Access to information, a safe environment where people can respectfully speak their minds and close collegial working are highly valued. At times, developers will program side-by-side or in pairs at one workstation, so as to review each others’ work. He refers to this as ‘peer code peering’.

Pair programming

Both reflective improvement and osmotic communication can be enhanced by the choice of tools developers use and the feedback they provide to her. Craftsmen in all trades rely on their tools to provide feedback – a joiner’s plane, a responsive power drill, etc. Many craftsmen will make their own tools to improve their responsiveness. Cockburn notes that one of the most important tools developers can use is an automated regression test suite, which allows the team to continuously test their work and provides feedback to each developer about the quality of their code. Feedback from a Continuous Integration (CI) suite of tools can be usefully presented by ‘information radiators’, dashboards which typically provide status information of servers, the number of use cases delivered and the number of tests passed. Although, Cockburn doesn’t use the term, I think that reflective improvement and osmotic communication refer to the ‘learning environment’ that the software craftsman creates so as to improve their understanding of their work and further develop their craft.

References to the importance of learning from others and from one’s work are made throughout McBreen’s book, as well as an entire chapter at the end of the book called ‘Perpetual Learning’. There, he outlines how to create a ‘learning environment’ by building a library of books for developers to read, as well as ensuring that they take time out each week to practice or learn something new. Like Cockburn, he emphasises the importance of workshops and a series of seminars where developers discuss their work. In addition, McBreen suggests that developers are encouraged to attend and present at conferences and write papers about their work as well as take on the role of instructor where they are able to do so. Craftsmen continually undertake self-directed learning, preferring non-proprietary, open source tools that are sustained by a community and made freely available to learn from, but more importantly, software craftsmen learn from each other, with master craftsmen mentoring journeymen and apprentices.

In a more recent book on software craftsmanship, Apprenticeship Patterns, Hoover and Oshineye also devote a chapter to ‘Perpetual Learning‘,  offering further practical advice to aspiring software craftsmen. They list the following:

  • Expand your bandwidth: Read books and articles, engage with your peers via conferences, social media and mailing lists, join user groups, study from open educational materials on the web
  • Practice, practice, practice: Take the time to practice your craft without interruptions, in an environment where you can feel comfortable making mistakes. i.e. ‘deliberate practice’ They borrow the term ‘code katas’, whereby programming exercises are repeated again and again until they become ingrained in the individual.
  • Breakable toys: Budget for failure by designing and building toy systems that are similar in toolset, but not in scope to the systems you build at work. i.e. build something personal to you, that you will learn from. Develop your own CMS or game that you can afford to break while learning.
  • Use the source:  Seek out other people’s code and read it.  Start with the applications and tools you use every day.
  • Reflect as you work: Become a reflective practitioner of software development. This involves regular introspection into how you are working.
  • Record what you learn: Keep a record of your journey in a journal, personal wiki, or blog. A chronological record of the lessons you have learned can provide inspiration to those you mentor, since it makes your journey explicit, but it can also give you a vital resource to draw upon.
  • Share what you learn: Early in your apprenticeship, develop the habit of regularly sharing the lessons you have learned. i.e. keep a blog, run workshop sessions, be part of a community of learners.
  • Create feedback loops: Create mechanisms for regularly gathering more or less objective external data about your performance. i.e. automated regression tests, information radiators, exams and certifications, pair programming, and asking your peers what they think.
  • Learn how you fail: Seek to identify the ways in which you tend to fail and try to resolve those that are worth fixing.

In his book, The Craftsman, Richard Sennett chooses to focus on open source software development as a modern form of craftsmanship (“the skill of making things well”). The value of Sennett’s book is its breadth of scope. While making no reference to McBreen’s earlier book, Sennett situates open source hacking and the development of GNU/Linux within the social and economic history of craftsmanship and our relationship with technology. For Sennett, Linux is a “public craft” and open source hackers are a “community of craftsmen.” In terms of learning this public craft, he compares ancient pottery making with open source hacking and finds that only the speed between problem finding and problem solving differentiates the two.  In programming, and especially open source programming, the velocity at which we can learn can be much greater than in traditional, material crafts. Our tools and the open, distributed nature of developer communities enhance our opportunities for learning.1

In The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye does not make reference to software development but does develop a very useful framework for identifying and understanding craftsmanship, which complements much of what Sennett and McBreen describe. For Pye, craftsmanship is the workmanship of risk; that is, work that is constantly at risk of error in the process of creation. A simple example of this is writing with a pen. In contrast to the workmanship of risk (craftsmanship) is the workmanship of certainty; that is, workmanship where the quality is always pre-determined and is usually found in quantity production, and always in fully automated work. An example of this would be modern printing. The workmanship of certainty is most common in modern, industrial society, but has existed in some form for hundreds, if not thousands of years. All types of workmanship exist somewhere on the axis between risk and certainty and furthermore are subject to varying degrees of regulation or freedom.



What distinguishes the degree of risk or certainty for Pye is the extent to which the workman’s tools regulate his work. Pye argues that a pure form of workmanship of risk is hardly ever seen in any trade; for centuries people have developed tools to help regulate their work in some way (e.g. jigs) and guarantee some degree of certainty in the quality of their work. Regulation of work does not necessarily lead to certainty as some tools such as a lathe can be used in combination with a free hand, producing unique objects that are nevertheless regulated in some respects such as their size but not their form.

A simple way of asking whether it is workmanship of risk or certainty is to ask, “is the result predetermined and unalterable once production begins?”

In the drawing above, I have speculated that software craftsmanship as McBreen describes it, would be called workmanship of risk by Pye, with regulation introduced by tools such as Integrated Development Environments (IDE), Continuous Integration (CI) suites and the general operating system environment the developer is working with. Although regulated, like almost all workmanship of risk, the software craftsman often produces something bespoke to the users’ requirements, iteratively working towards the desired result through the writing and refactoring of code. Agile software development recognises that the result of most software development cannot be predetermined and that projects run best when they remain responsive to the users’ feedback. Software Engineering, on the other hand, aims to eliminate as much of the risk as possible and pre-determine the outcome of the design and programming effort, which both McBreen and Pyritz both identify as a form of Taylorism.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers defines software engineering as “the application of a systematic, disciplined, quantifiable approach to development, operation, and maintenance of software”. Pyritz questions whether the Taylorist model of scientific management is even viable in software development, quoting Humphrey, who asked ‘Why don’t they practice what they preach?’

The general practices of industrial software engineers are poor by almost any measure”. Why? “The educational system does not provide graduates with the practical skills they will later need. . . . Few software organizations are willing or able to provide the remedial training their new engineers need. Today’s software organizations have few if any role models who consistently demonstrate effective work habits and disciplines.

In learning to become software craftsmen we need role models, too. Both McBreen and Sennett emphasise the importance of apprenticeship and slowly learning by doing with others. This is what JISC’s DevCSI offers to the sector, running regular hack days, DevXS and the annual Dev8D conference. This year over 250 developers attended Dev8D to learn from each other.

Learning from each other at Dev8D

Learning from each other at Dev8D

While I was at Dev8D, I issued an informal survey asking developers a number of questions about their working environment, how they learn their craft, the tools they use and an assessment of their skills. I shall provide a summary of the responses in another post [UPDATE: here it is], but I am encouraged to do further research in determining how developers (working in tertiary education) learn their craft and how opportunities for learning might be improved.

Another related project I started while at Dev8D was Hacking the University, a simple website intended to collect short interviews with developers working in universities. It is inspired by The Setup and I hope that over time, it will provide a record of the people working in this community and add to the recognition of the work they do, how they learn and how their working environment impacts upon their work and learning.

If you are a developer working in a university, please consider contributing to Hacking the University and telling others about your approach to your craft.

  1. Sennett’s observations also help us consider software craftsmanship together with learning theories such as cognitive apprenticeship, situated learning, and constructivism. []

More like a web application and less like a website

Automattic, the company behind WordPress, released a report today which summarises their recent project to test the usability of WordPress. It’s an interesting read if you use WordPress, but also if you’re interested in software development and usability testing. What’s most interesting for me, is how a large and successful open source project can co-ordinate a major redesign of an application, tested by thousands of enthusiasts for use by millions of general users.

While discussions about the design of an open source application can be had at any time on support forums, in this case, the formal change process began in May, through focused third-party usability testing, where 12 volunteers were carefully selected (and paid $75 in wordpress.com credits!). There was then a presentation at the San Francisco WordCamp in August, where wider feedback was elicited. A survey was announced in early September and a further survey, calling for 5000 participants was announced in late September. An annoucement was made at the beginning of October, where feedback was invited on a series of ‘wireframe’ mockups of the new design. Following feedback, the re-design was formally announced in mid-October and later this month designers were asked to submit their portfolio if they were interested in being recruited to design new icons (the following week!). Throughout this process, the development code, updated nightly, could be downloaded, installed and the application reviewed, too. Several mailing lists are used for open discussion, notably the ‘hackers’ and ‘testers’ lists.

The outcome of this incredibly rapid and completely transparent consultation, testing, feedback and design process has made it into the next release of WordPress (v2.7), due for release on November 10th. At just seven months from start to finish, it’s an excellent example of public collaboration between developers, designers and users, largely co-ordinated by one Automattic employee.

Here’s the testing report (PDF)

Here are the wireframes (PDF)

Here’s the presentation they gave in August, which covers the usability testing process.

[slideshare id=576329&doc=wordcampridingthecrazyhorse-1220190400876743-9&w=425]

The Student as Producer

We were recently unsuccessful in an application to JISC for a Learning and Teaching Innovation Grant. Nevertheless, the project is one that we’re keen on pursuing in some shape or form, so I thought I post the details here and invite comment.

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Open Repositories 2008 Conference

OR2008, the Third International Conference on Open Repositories began today and I’ll be posting my session notes to the LL Blog. It’s a bigger conference than I imagined. There are 486 delegates, from 35 countries, with about a third from the UK, a third from Europe, a quarter from the USA and the remaining 10% of people from Asia, Australia and New Zealand. The conference halls are packed and there is even an over-flow room where people watch the main sessions via a video feed. Not me! I get to the conference sessions early in order to get a decent seat.

The Conference website has the full programme in PDF format. True to form, there’s also a repository of conference papers and presentations.

The Keynote speaker discussed the requirements of the scientific community, arguing that open access to, the interpretation and display of scientific data is essential for these repository users. He said that the Protein Data Bank was an excellent example of such a repository. These repositories need to be embedded into the ‘white coat’ researcher’s daily work and not just places to deposit finished articles. He told us that researchers are not prepared to change the way they work and that students should be trained in good information management as they are the future of research. He pointed to several ‘open’ endeavours, such as ‘science commons‘, the ‘Open Knowledge Foundation‘, ‘open data‘ and ‘open science‘.

He reminded everyone that even the simplest of processes are complex to map, and being integral to the authoring process, trying to capture and integrate this digitally, without intruding on the work itself, is the most difficult of challenges. A worthwhile challenge, nonetheless, as 90% of scientific research data is, apparently, lost. The ICE-RS Project, is one such endeavour.

Of course, this is something businesses are also concerned with and is the stuff of Enterprise Content Management Systems (ECMS). I do wonder whether it would be a useful project to study and report on current commercial and open source ECMS solutions, as there seems to be little to no overlap between academic content management systems and repositories and those used in the corporate world.

Interestingly, he mentioned the use of Subversion as a way of backing up and versioning research, something I’m familiar with in software development but hadn’t thought about using for version control of my own work. Something to look into…