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Artists, wizards, and craftsmen

Ernie the Attorney made an offhand comment about programmers as artists the other day, which got me thinking, although I half suspect it was meant to be tongue in cheek. Still… artists? I’m not sure; I think the various tribes of computer professionals (programmers, system administrators, network administrators) are more akin to court wizards.

We are comfortable and fluent with devices that almost everyone’s forced to interact with every day. It’s a prestigious position; the unwashed are constantly reminded how much they need us. It’s also a set of occupations that until fairly recently has been taught in the medieval style. All the best sysadmins I know learned from other skilled masters. We have no formal apprenticeship system, but the trappings are all there.

When your interaction with the public tends to center around confusion on the part of the public, it’s difficult not to become arrogant. (No, I don’t think I’ve avoided the temptation.) You see this in the traditional attitude towards sales and marketing, so I’ll use them as an example. Few computer geeks respect those departments, even though the average programmer would make a horrendous marketer or salesperson. Not surprising: it’s far more common for a salesperson to come down and ask for help with the network than it is for a network admin to wander up and ask for help with…

Well, with nothing. Sales and marketing isn’t a service organization, so when do we geeks have the chance to see their talents at work? And what you can’t see doesn’t exist. Human nature says so. The perceived power relationship is one-way.

I also suspect that the dot-com boom had some effect here. Out here in the Valley, becoming a marketing professional wasn’t particularly difficult for quite a few years. You can’t really argue that selling gewgaws to dot-coms was a hard sell, after all. So a lot of the sales and marketing folks were, in fact, inept.

Thus, when someone suggests that lawyers might have something to say about the nature of computer programming, the prickles rise. Every day, we deal with the inept and the helpless. It seems wrong that the helpless should dictate how we work, n’est pas? The court wizards dislike being ruled by the will of those less powerful.

I think there’s a term limit on this perception. On the one hand, we’ll inevitably reach a time when nobody personally remembers a time before computers. It’s easier if you grow up with them. Further, and probably before even that time, the interfaces will get easier and more natural. Ask Steve Jobs.

On the other hand, the art of computer programming and the art of system administration will become crafts, and they will become more and more automated. You see it in little flowerings of evolution here and there. Hypercard comes to mind, as an example of a brief explosion of ease of use. I won’t say Hypercard made programming easy, but it did open doors for some. Not all, but some. There will be other Hypercards.

There will also be Hypercards for system administration. The evolution of 1U servers (slim inexpensive rack computers) is an important part of that. As it becomes less important to maintain any one server’s uptime, it requires less skill to maintain the system as a whole. (There’s more to be said on this particular aspect of my topic but I think I’ll save it for another entry.)

Summary? The attitude of many (not all) computer geeks is inevitable given the current place of computers in our society, and can’t be easily changed by argument. Nor need it be. The path to change lies along the road of ease of use, and there are enough forces driving that progress so that I’m not overly worried.


  1. still@av still@av

    Hmmm … I was discussing this, sort-of, with a couple of
    friends. I’m not sure computer programming is, or even was,
    art, although there are many circles where that is how it is
    presented, particularly to novices.

  2. Bryant Bryant

    Dave Winer is now claiming that software is like a house, and once you build it you should get to live in it as long as you want.

    The danger of metaphor becomes painfully apparent, I think.

  3. still@av still@av

    I actually think programming is more like building houses
    (or should be). In an email thread with an aunt and my sister
    sometime back, I explained that software engineering
    needed to be a carefully considered activity (for
    sofware that’s actually meant to support some critical
    function), not unlike building a house. I used some
    citations from Frederick Brooks’ THE MYTHICAL MAN-MONTH
    to support my statements.

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