Monday, October 10, 2011

The Joys of the Craft

People place computer programming right next to accounting, mathematics, and economics, the dismal science. Only nerds and unathletic teen-agers could possibly pursue such occupations. There are also people who remember the weather on any one day, and at any one hour of that day all the way back to childhood. You name a date and hour. They will give you chapter and verse. Poor souls. Programmers aren’t quite as bad, but close. The public rolls its eyes. That programming can be high adventure, drama, and exalting, creative activity seems not quite credible. You want to play 0 and 1? Most people opt out.

Back in 1975 one Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., employed by IBM to manage the development of that company’s OS/360, a mainframe operating system, wrote a book entitled The Mythical Man-Month. It became an instant classic within the weird cabal of people who program computers. Back then I lived in the Paradise/Hell of code. I got the book and started reading it at once. Wonderful book, wonderful. Now the other day the book fell into my hands again. It lay in a box filled with mostly old science fiction volumes the Magee household was giving to the library; they’re running out of space. Was there anything in the box I wanted for myself? There it was, The Mythical Man-Month! And, of course, out of the box it came. A day or so later I opened the book again, once more delighted.

Now this book is about the inner aspects of building very large, complex programming systems; that’s what operating systems are. Thus the book deals with the paradoxical aspects of complexity. Yes, it is about computer system—but then, again, not really. It applies to all great enterprises—indeed, as the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy put it, it applies to Life, the Universe, and Everything. It transcends its subject narrowly viewed. But what immediately caught my attention in the 1970s was Fred Brooks’ insight into an activity the public does not understand. To summarize this insight, let me quote a section from Brooks’ first chapter. The section is titled The Joys of the Craft. The passage also illuminates the scope of the book.
     Why is programming fun? What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward?
     First is the sheer joy of making things. As the child delights in his mud pie, so the adult enjoys building things, especially things of his own design. I think this delight must be an image of God’s delight in making things, a delight shown in the distinctness and newness of each leaf and each snowflake.
     Second is the pleasure of making things that are useful to other people. Deep within, we want others to use our work and find it helpful. In this respect the programming system is not essentially different from the child’s first clay pencil holder “for Daddy’s office.”
     Third is the fascination of fashioning complex puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts and watching them work in subtle cycles, playing out the consequences of principles built in from the beginning. The programmed computer has all the fascination of the pinball machine or the jukebox mechanism, carried to the ultimate.
     Fourth is the joy of always learning, which springs from the nonrepeating nature of the task. In one way or another the problem is ever new, and its solver learns something: sometimes practical, sometimes theoretical, and sometimes both.
     Finally, there is the delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures. (As we shall see later, this very tractability has its own problems.)
That last parenthetical statement puts the absolute stamp of authenticity on this book. The very freedom of creation is itself a challenge—which few people awarely recognize unless they have visited those realms. The next and last section of this initial chapter deals with The Woes of the Craft. In a way they almost match the joys—but only almost. They are present in all creative work—one reason why I described my life in that realm as Paradise/Hell.

For the impatient, the “mythical man-month” refers to the curious fact that in great tasks, where by definition everything is connected with everything else, you can’t get the job done faster, or even on-time, by simply piling on the labor. Increasing the man-power can actually slow down the process rather than speeding it up.

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