The Artima Developer Community
Sponsored Link

Java Community News
Are Authors Technological Poseurs?

30 replies on 3 pages. Most recent reply: Oct 3, 2007 9:25 AM by Rene Clabaugh

Welcome Guest
  Sign In

Go back to the topic listing  Back to Topic List Click to reply to this topic  Reply to this Topic Click to search messages in this forum  Search Forum Click for a threaded view of the topic  Threaded View   
Previous Topic   Next Topic
Flat View: This topic has 30 replies on 3 pages [ 1 2 3 | » ]
Frank Sommers

Posts: 2642
Nickname: fsommers
Registered: Jan, 2002

Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 20, 2007 3:06 PM
Reply to this message Reply
Summary
JRuby developer Charles Nutter asks in a recent blog post whether good developers have time to be good authors of articles and books at the same time, and if well-known technical book authors really have the deep experience with a technology that can only come from writing lots of code.
Advertisement

Writing code and writing about code are two very different things, notes Charles Nutter, one of the core developers behind JRuby, in Are Authors Technological Poseurs? While admitting that there are exceptions, Nutter observes that:

Good authors do not have time to be good developers... Think of your favorite technical author, perhaps one of the more insightful, or the one who takes the most care in their authoring craft. Now tell me one serious, nontrivial contribution they've made in the form of real code. It's hard, isn't it?...

There are, without a doubt, good authors that manage to keep a balance between words and code. But I'm increasingly of the opinion that it's not practical or perhaps even possible to maintain a serious dedication to both writing and coding...

Is there a direct correlation between the quality and breadth of an author's work and a suspicious (or obvious) lack of real, concrete development?

What do you think of Nutter's observations?


Alex Stojan

Posts: 95
Nickname: alexstojan
Registered: Jun, 2005

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 20, 2007 4:00 PM
Reply to this message Reply
I don't think there has to be such a correlation, but that might depend on the topic an author wants to write about. My feeling is that, for example, one can write a good book by simply collecting work from other books and articles and describing it in his own words and give his own examples. I think this might not necessarily require extensive coding experience.

Kay Schluehr

Posts: 302
Nickname: schluehk
Registered: Jan, 2005

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 20, 2007 9:54 PM
Reply to this message Reply
Donald Knuth, Joe Armstrong, Bjarne Stroustrup...

Seriously. As a software developer you will likely write design documentation and I guess Charles is no exception. You might not write your books and the software at the same time. Hope that's a good solution.

Steve Loughran

Posts: 9
Nickname: stevel
Registered: Feb, 2006

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 1:18 AM
Reply to this message Reply
> My feeling is that, for example, one can write a good book
> by simply collecting work from other books and articles
> and describing it in his own words and give his own
> examples. I think this might not necessarily require
> extensive coding experience.

No. I think you need to understand what you are writing about.

That doesnt mean that you can't write a readable book by collating other things, but you wont really understand what's going on, and your mental model of the internals are going to be second hand. In the OSS world, of course, the source is there, so you can learn without being part of the team.

Being the author of Ant in Action, I can state that I certainly knew all of Ant's internals, and you can track the bugzilla entries against Ant to see when I wrote the different chapters.

The only area where I did have to learn as I went along was EJB3, which is not something I'd played with before (I'd been in the hibernate space instead). That chapter ended up taking months, not just because I was learning, but because the spec and (Jboss) implementation was so unstable. I found a lot of bugs there too.

Treat a book as a bit like a PhD: you have to do original work for a good book, work that takes time. If you've already done that work, then you can write something fast. If you have to do the research during writing, add it to the schedule.

Steve Loughran
Author: Ant in Action
http://www.1060.org/blogxter/publish/5

disney

Posts: 35
Nickname: juggler
Registered: Jan, 2003

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 1:36 AM
Reply to this message Reply
> I'm increasingly of the opinion that it's not practical
> or perhaps even possible to maintain a serious dedication
> to both writing and coding...

As Richard Gabriel said some years ago now (http://www.dreamsongs.com/RPGWritingBroadside.html), a programmer is also a writer. A successful software designer is - and perhaps must be? - a coder and a writer.

Frank Silbermann

Posts: 40
Nickname: fsilber
Registered: Mar, 2006

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 6:32 AM
Reply to this message Reply
Someone who writes a great deal of code might be using a limited set of techniques over and over again. He might not be using his tools in the most elegant way; he just wants to get the job done and must balance his learning time with his coding time.

I think that to be a good author it's more important to _read_ a great deal of code. That way he can learn the best use of each construct, and he'll have the experience to judge what works best to make code readable.

It's sort of like the difference in tennis between teaching pros versus tournament pros. The tournament competitor needs to thoroughly master one style, and he can use his strengths to cover up his weaknesses. The teaching pro, on the other hand, needs to know all the shots and all the different styles of stroke production and strategy -- even if he's not as sharp or as quick with any one of them -- because he needs to be able to teach a diverse range of pupils.

Alex Stojan

Posts: 95
Nickname: alexstojan
Registered: Jun, 2005

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 7:33 AM
Reply to this message Reply
> > My feeling is that, for example, one can write a good
> book
> > by simply collecting work from other books and articles
> > and describing it in his own words and give his own
> > examples. I think this might not necessarily require
> > extensive coding experience.
>
> No. I think you need to understand what you are writing
> about.
>
> That doesnt mean that you can't write a readable book by
> collating other things, but you wont really understand
> what's going on, and your mental model of the internals
> are going to be second hand. In the OSS world, of course,
> the source is there, so you can learn without being part
> of the team.
>
> Being the author of Ant in Action, I can state that I
> certainly knew all of Ant's internals, and you can track
> the bugzilla entries against Ant to see when I wrote the
> different chapters.
>
> The only area where I did have to learn as I went along
> was EJB3, which is not something I'd played with before
> (I'd been in the hibernate space instead). That chapter
> ended up taking months, not just because I was learning,
> but because the spec and (Jboss) implementation was so
> unstable. I found a lot of bugs there too.
>
> Treat a book as a bit like a PhD: you have to do original
> work for a good book, work that takes time. If you've
> already done that work, then you can write something fast.
> If you have to do the research during writing, add it to
> the schedule.
>
> Steve Loughran
> Author: Ant in Action
> http://www.1060.org/blogxter/publish/5

I absolutely agree with this - you must understand what you're writing about. My point was that you don't *necessarily* have to have an extensive coding experience. For example, you can teach someone about inheritance in C++ without having written lots of C++ code - you just need to understand the rules and come up with some short examples.

Morgan Conrad

Posts: 307
Nickname: miata71
Registered: Mar, 2006

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 7:55 AM
Reply to this message Reply
Sometimes the example code is pretty wretched. For example, the CreditCardConverter code from mastering JavaServerFaces. (page 70-71 in my copy).

Frank Sommers

Posts: 2642
Nickname: fsommers
Registered: Jan, 2002

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 8:12 AM
Reply to this message Reply
I have to agree with Charles Nutter's comments, I'm afraid.

The successful writer+developer examples cited above are mostly of people who wrote one book, often focusing on some technology/language they invented. That doesn't make one a writer in the sense of someone writing regularly and getting paid for it, etc. I don't think Nutter talks about someone having the ability to write well, but someone actually doing writing as a regular activity - in the sense that "you are what you habitually do" - and doing it well.

Good, publishable writing takes an excruciating amount of time and mental focus- both taken away from solving coding problems. Lacking such focus is probably fine for blog posts or shorter pieces, but not for writing a book or even for longer articles. And a not-well-written book or article, in my opinion wastes most readers time - and, indeed, will not find many readers. In that sense, then, it also wastes the writer's time.

I actually have some hard evidence to back this claim up. Having written dozens of articles, many for the Web, confirms my view that articles I spent most of my time on always received the most amount of page views, even long after being published, suggesting that people, in fact, link to them. Whereas those with much less effort invested tend to receive negligible page views. (Again, I'm not including blog posts here.)

BTW, I think this is even more so for training, but that's another subject.

Frank Sommers

Posts: 2642
Nickname: fsommers
Registered: Jan, 2002

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 8:27 AM
Reply to this message Reply
One more thought on this topic: In general, I think the technical book and publishing market is pretty just in terms of rewarding authors for their time and effort invested in producing a book or article.

Books that are truly outstanding from the writing/authoring perspective, tend to outsell books that were put together in a haste with trivial or incorrect examples, etc., etc. In fact, outstanding books often have a long shelf-life (provided they focus on a technology with a longer life-span).

If we look at such best-selling books, I think, again, there are two categories: One authored by the inventor of the technology (who sometimes may also be an outstanding writer as well, e..g, Larry Wall)., and in another camp are books written by more or less professional authors who are really good at being authors, but may not have made significant contributions in terms code.

Thus, it seems, the free market really determines who becomes a writer: If you are rewarded for writing books more than for being a developer, then that incentive would naturally invite someone to write more, and spend less time on coding (by "reward," I mean both monetary and psychological). But if you cannot make a decent living from writing (or training, which often comes with the territory of being an author), compared with coding, then that suggests that coding is where your strengths lie.

Of course, this is an over-simplification, and there are exceptions to this.

Cameron Purdy

Posts: 186
Nickname: cpurdy
Registered: Dec, 2004

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 8:57 AM
Reply to this message Reply
Charles is right, at least for me. The more I write about what I do, and the more I go around speaking about what I do, the less I actually do, and the more technologically irrelevant I become.

I only hope that I can teach others faster than I lose my own abilities ;-)

Peace,

Cameron Purdy | Oracle
http://www.oracle.com/technology/products/coherence/index.html

robert young

Posts: 361
Nickname: funbunny
Registered: Sep, 2003

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 9:25 AM
Reply to this message Reply
Some authors, Bruce Eckel and Allen Holub and Joel Spolsky (quiet in the back) come to mind, do explore the semantics and syntax of what they write about far more than the developers. They have the time. Developers generally, certainly in this day of Framework Oriented Programming, take what's 80% pre-built and put on some lipstick.

Such authors find the neat, and not so neat, parts of the language (be it programming or database or markup). They do, of necessity, present what they find in compact examples. But here's a quote:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked.
-- Nick Gall/1978

So, working from "simple" examples isn't necessarily an indication that one is simple minded.

James Watson

Posts: 2024
Nickname: watson
Registered: Sep, 2005

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 10:13 AM
Reply to this message Reply
> Some authors, Bruce Eckel and Allen Holub and Joel Spolsky
> (quiet in the back) come to mind, do explore the semantics
> and syntax of what they write about far more than the
> developers. They have the time. Developers generally,
> certainly in this day of Framework Oriented Programming,
> take what's 80% pre-built and put on some lipstick.

That's right, Mel, you aren't a real programmer if you don't start from scratch. Now let's get back to writing machine code.

Brandon Corfman

Posts: 14
Nickname: bcorfman
Registered: Aug, 2003

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 10:15 AM
Reply to this message Reply
> <p>What do you think of Nutter's observations?</p>

I have to agree. By merely authoring the question, Nutter's coding skills have gone down by 10 percent. ;)

Joking aside, I think you have to consider the author. Many authors publish books by reworking MSDN or JavaDoc examples and documentation into a more usable form -- God bless 'em. Such books do serve a useful purpose but, of course, they also have limited scope. I don't think anyone would say these authors have coding skills on par with a Knuth, Kernighan or Stroustrup.

Kay Schluehr

Posts: 302
Nickname: schluehk
Registered: Jan, 2005

Re: Are Authors Technological Poseurs? Posted: Sep 21, 2007 8:15 PM
Reply to this message Reply
> That's right, Mel, you aren't a real programmer if you
> don't start from scratch. Now let's get back to writing
> machine code.

Robert Young shoots on OO since he contributes to Artima discussions. Some people will always be neurotic about a certain technology whatsoever. Fortunately there are very few people posting here where caring about them is a complete waste of time.

Flat View: This topic has 30 replies on 3 pages [ 1  2  3 | » ]
Topic: Is WYSIWYG Still Important? Previous Topic   Next Topic Topic: AppFuse 2.0 Released


Sponsored Links



Google
  Web Artima.com   

Copyright © 1996-2017 Artima, Inc. All Rights Reserved. - Privacy Policy - Terms of Use - Advertise with Us