ArticleS. UncleBob.
TakingCare [add child]

Taking Care: The Beauty of Utility

I am consulting for a customer in Wroclaw, Poland this week. (That's the old German town of Breslau, but is pronounced VRAHT-swahf.) This weekend I visited the museum of archeology, right by the town square. As I was looking through the museum I was struck by the care that was taken by those ancient peoples who created arrows, hooks, axes, pots, baskets, and all the other artifacts of daily life. These objects must have taken hours, days, and sometimes weeks to create; and yet the peoples of those time determined that the time spent was worth the effort.

I examined one arrow for several minutes. The arrow was completely utilitarian. There were no decorations or adornments. And yet it was a thing of great beauty and craftsmanship. The shaft was just a stick, but was clearly selected very carefully for it's straightness and regularity. The arrowhead was rough hewn quartz, and yet it's shape was perfectly tuned for the shaft and the gut chording that securely lashed it to the shaft. The lashings were tight, regular, and precise. The object taken as a whole made a deep impression on me. Someone took great pains to build it. Someone cared.

More impressive still was an ancient loom. This device was made from the branches of trees. Like the arrow, it was unadorned and rough hewn. And yet it was so wonderfully designed, and carefully thought through. It was just a matter of a few minutes for me to understand how it worked. From the weighted warp strings, to the clever shaft that alternately separated the warp strings so that the weaver could drag the woof shuttle between them. The device was a masterpiece of ancient utilitarian craftsmanship and engineering.

I was also struck by the care that would be needed to use the loom. Just to set up the warp strings would have been a matter of many hours if not days. Every other warp string had to be connected to the warp shaft by a loose string of precisely the right length, so that when the weaver pulled the shaft, those warp strings would be pulled away from the remaining warp strings. This had to be done carefully to prevent tangles in the warp.

The moral I took away from this experience was: Utilitarianism does not amount to carelessness!. Another way to say this is that you don't have to adorn and decorate something for it to exhibit great craftsmanship. Craftsmanship is not so much about external beauty, as it is about internal beauty; the beauty of utility.

As I studied this ancient device it struck me that if they could take such great care in the building and use of their utilitarian devices, that we software engineers can too. As a software consultant I am exposed to a great deal of code. I am often appalled at the sheer carelessness with which much of this code is constructed. It is as though the authors, in their hurry to achieve utilitarian success, abandon care. What the arrow, and the loom, and so many of the other artifacts in the museum represented to me is that utilitarian success is a result of care!

If we are software professionals then we care about our craft, and about our crafstmanship. We don't throw a bunch of code together and poke and prod it until it soft-of works. Rather we take care to make sure the code is well conceived, well written, well tested, and well documented.

I wear a green wrist-band that says TEST FIRST as a symbol of this careful professional attitude. It represents a promise that I made to myself and my profession, that I will not be careless with my code.

 Wroclaw is great!.
As an aside, Wroclaw is a beautiful city, that is recovering spectacularly from Soviet domination and repression. The city square is colorful, alive, and prospering. The university is producing bright and aggressive new graduates. Businesses are forming. There is lots of construction and renovation. In short, things are popping. And the food is great!

!commentForm -r
 Thu, 29 Jun 2006 12:09:03, , Verification and Ancient Times
As for the Solomon's temple, supposedly one wall stil remains standing, so that any theory could be verified.

If we are going to build a wall made of bricks of stone, stones can't be manufactured like bricks, they need to be found and cut in regular pieces, but since they are so stiff, it is really hard and expensive to create regular stones. And if you go to Macchu Picchu, you will see that they were living in the stone age, but their buildings were colossal. They really knew how to build with stones and they used nothing between one rock and the next, yet the buildings do not fall after earthquakes even after 500 years.
 Sat, 17 Jun 2006 12:14:51, Rob McBride[?], Craftsmanship
I enjoyed reading this. It reminds me of the building of Solomon's temple. It is recorded in the Bible (1 Kings 6:7) that all the stones were prepared at the quarry and each one fit so perfectly in its place that no iron tools were needed at the building site. This makes me wonder how they did it. Did they expect each stone to have small unknown variations such that they could not specify the size, shape and placement of each stone at the start? If I had to guess I would say that they measured for each stone as they went. I would guess they were agile in their building methods. Just a guess.