Artist versus Craftsman.

If there is one thing I’ve learned the hard way with respect to software engineers, its to never trust first impressions. In many other aspects I have always been extremely good at sizing people up based on my first impression. To such an extend that some of my friends have jokingly accused me of witchcraft.
In contrast, with respect to software engineers and their skill and productivity level, I’ve turned out to have my first impressions proven wrong so many times that I stopped trusting them.

Sure, I know how to spot a standard mediocre software engineer based on first impression, but a good one, or one that generates an exceptional high percentage off the bugs for a project,  for some reason I’ve proved to be incapable of spotting the difference between those two. To me it seemed like the difference between being exceptional and being a major source of bugs was a subtle difference that I was unable to spot. Both the exceptional software engineer and the source of many bugs software engineers share major characteristics. Both are highly intelligent, highly creative and both have a strongly developed sense for aesthetics.

It took me many years of working in software engineering to notice a pattern emerge that seemed to point to what this difference might be. After working for a while with other software engineers, there were some software engineers that at some point felt the need to emphasize the creative aspects of their work as software engineer by referring to themselves as or comparing themselves with an ‘artist’.  The pattern that seemed to emerge was that for the group of highly  intelligent, highly creative software engineers with a strong sense for aesthetics, the eventual use of the word ‘artist’ and/or ‘artistic’  seemed to coincide with the sub group that instead of being exceptional ended up being a major source of bugs.

So, with all other things being seemingly equal between the exceptional software engineer and the software engineer that turns out to become a major source of bugs, does being an artist give us any pointers to what is different between these two groups? As someone who, before becoming a software  engineer, spent much of his time making drawings and air-brush paintings, I found this notion rather disagreeable.  For me, different from those ‘artist’ I talk about, software engineering isn’t an art but a craft. When we look back at the history of art, we notice an important paradox. Many of the most adored and most priceless pieces of paintings that were ever made, were created in an era when painting wasn’t considered an art and no painter would think of himself or refer to himself as an artist. A painter was a craftsman that took pride in his craft. He used his creativity in a way subordinate to his craftsmanship and the result, looking at the old masters was amazing and unsurpassed by most modern artist type painters.

So maybe the parallel between software engineering and artistic crafts like painting is indeed valid, but more than painting, choosing the  artist approach to software engineering rather than the craftsman approach is a road not without peril.

So basically the difference between being a major source of bugs and being exceptional at software engineering might just be a state of mind. Considering your craftsmanship as a subordinate tool to your artistic creativity  might be the thing that is holding you back from reaching exceptional heights as a software engineer. So you are an artist, fine, we’ll go with that. Take an example from the old masters. Make your artistic creativity subordinate to your craftsmanship. The old masters did it and produced some of the most beautiful paintings.If you are one of those highly intelligent, highly creative software engineers with  a strongly developed sense for aesthetics who considers himself an artist, this little shift in your state of mind might transform you to an exceptional software engineer without giving up on viewing software engineering as an artistic process.

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One response to “Artist versus Craftsman.

  1. nice article. for me a programmer has always been between an artist and engineer. only recently I’ve seen more people portraying it as a craftsmanship and that seems legit to me.

    what really amazed me till today is yet the acute difference of how an artist work and the analogy for the software industry:
    an artist work starts in a pure chaos and gradually being worked out to an artistic coherent work, on the contrary many projects I’ve been involved in start in a perfect order with a pure design and end up in utter chaos and spaghetti monsters :)

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