Software Development is an Art, Not a Science

personal, culture comments edit

There has been a lot of push lately for people to learn to code. From Hour of Code to the President of the United States pushing for more coders, the movement towards everyone coding is on.

What gets lost in the hype, drowned out by the fervor of people everywhere jamming keys on keyboards, is that simply being able to code is not software development.

OK, sure, technically speaking when you write code that executes a task you have just developed a piece of software. Also, technically speaking, when you fumble out Chopsticks on the keyboard while walking through Costco you just played the piano. That doesn’t make you a pianist any more than taking an hour to learn to code makes you a software developer.

Here’s where my unpopular opinion comes out. Here’s where I call out the elephant in the room and the politically-correct majority gasp at how I can be so unencouraging to these folks learning to code.

Software development is an art, not a science.

Not everyone can be a software developer in the same way not everyone can be a pianist, a painter, or a sculptor. Anyone can learn to play the piano well; anyone can learn to paint or sculpt reasonably. That doesn’t mean just anyone can make a living doing these things.

It’s been said that if you spend 10,000 hours practicing a task you can become great at anything. 10,000 hours is basically five years of a full-time job. So, ostensibly, if you spent five years full-time coding, you’d be a developer.

However, we’ve all heard that argument about experience: Have you had 20 years of experience? Or one year of experience 20 times? Does spending 10,000 hours coding make you a developer? Or does it just mean you spent a lot of time coding?

Regardless of your time in any field you have probably run across both of these people - the ones who really have 20 years’ experience and the ones who have been working for 20 years and you wonder how they’ve advanced so far in their careers.

I say that to be a good developer - or a good artist - you need three things: skills, aptitude, and passion.

Skills are the rote abilities you learn when you start with that Hour of Code or first take a class on coding. Pretty much anyone can learn a certain level of skill in nearly any field. It’s learned ability that takes a brainpower and dedication.

Aptitude is a fuzzier quality meaning your natural ability to do something. This is where the “art” part of development starts coming in. You may have learned the skills to code, but do you have any sort of natural ability to perform those skills?

Passion is your enthusiasm - in this case, the strong desire to execute the skills you have and continue to improve on them. This is also part of the “art” of development. You might be really good at jamming out code, but if you don’t like doing it you probably won’t come up with the best solutions to the problems with which you’re faced.

Without all three, you may be able to code but you won’t really be a developer.

A personal anecdote to help make this a bit more concrete: When I went to college, I told my advisors that I really wanted to be a 3D graphics animator/modeler. My dream job was (and still kind of is) working for Industrial Light and Magic on special effects. As a college kid, I didn’t know any better, so when the advisors said I should get a Computer Science degree, I did. Only later did I find out that wouldn’t get me into ILM or Pixar. Why? In their opinion (at the time, in my rejection letters), “you can teach computer science to an artist but you can’t teach art to a computer scientist.”

The first interesting thing I find there is that, at least at the time, the thought there was that art “isn’t teachable.” For the most part, I agree - without the skills, aptitude, and passion for art, you’re not going to be a really great artist.

The more interesting thing I find is the lack of recognition that solving computer science problems, in itself, is an art.

If you’ve dived into code, you’re sure to have seen this, though maybe you didn’t realize it.

  • Have you ever seen a really tough problem solved in an amazingly elegant way that you’d never have thought of yourself? What about the converse - a really tough problem solved in such a brute force manner that you can’t imagine why that’s good?
  • Have you ever picked up someone else’s code and found that it’s entirely unreadable? If you hand someone else your code, can they make heads or tails of it? What about code that was so clearly written you didn’t even need any comments to understand how it worked?
  • Have you ever seen code that’s so deep and unnecessarily complicated that if anything went wrong with it you could never fix it? What about code that’s so clear you could easily fix anything with it if a problem was discovered?

We’ve all seen this stuff. We’ve all written this stuff. I know I have… and still do. Sometimes we even laugh about it.

The important part is that those three factors - skill, aptitude, and passion - work together to improve us as developers.

I don’t laugh at a beginner’s code because their skills aren’t there yet. However, their aptitude and passion may help to motivate them to raise their skill level, which will make them overall better at what they do.

The art of software development isn’t about the quantity of code churned out, it’s about quality. It’s about constant improvement. It’s about change. These are the unquantifiable things that separate the coders from the developers.

Every artist constantly improves. I’m constantly improving, and I hope you are, too. It’s the artistic aspect of software development that drives us to do so, to solve the problems we’re faced with. Don’t just be a software developer, be a software artist. And be the best artist you can be.