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Don't Live with Broken Windows
A Conversation with Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas, Part I
by Bill Venners
March 3, 2003

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Pragmatic Programmers Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas talk with Bill Venners about software craftsmanship and the importance of fixing the small problems in your code, the "broken windows," so they don't grow into large problems.

Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas are the Pragmatic Programmers, recognized internationally as experts in the development of high-quality software. Their best-selling book of software best practices, The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master (Addison-Wesley, 1999), is filled with practical advice on a wide range of software development issues. They also authored Programming Ruby: A Pragmatic Programmer's Guide (Addison-Wesley, 2000), and helped to write the now famous Agile Manifesto.

In this interview, which is being published in ten weekly installments, Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas discuss many aspects of software development. In this first installment, they discuss the importance of software craftsmanship and the importance of staying on top of the small problems in your projects.

Craftsmanship and Cathedrals

Bill Venners: In the preface of your book, The Pragmatic Programmer, you quote a Quarry worker's creed:

We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.

You then say "Within the overall structure of a project there is always room for individuality and craftsmanship." What do you mean by that?

Dave Thomas: In a very structured environment, people tend to abdicate responsibility. People say, "It's not my job anymore. My boss is telling me what to do. A big master plan is given to me. I just have to do this module, and this module, and this module." The analogy is with a stone mason who is a very small part of a very big whole. The reality is that the stone masons building the cathedrals were seriously high quality craftsmen. They were always conscious of the fact that the work they were doing was going to be the face of a cathedral. What we're saying is, even if you feel you don't have the authority or responsibility to do it right, the reality is you do. The quality of the work you are doing is important. It contributes to the overall impact or effect of the project.

Andy Hunt: The other facet is that this allows or encourages individual artistry. You can't go hog wild. You're building a cathedral. You have to carve your gargoyle to fit into the overall theme and coherent tone of the place. You can't start carving swans or something. But within the overall design constraints of the whole, you still have that individual artistic liberty to do your best work as it relates to that whole.

Bill Venners: Why is that important?

Dave Thomas: Two reasons. First, programming is very difficult. To do it well requires a phenomenal amount of commitment. To motivate yourself and keep yourself committed, you need to have pride in what you're doing. If instead you consider yourself a mechanical assembly line worker, whose only job is to take the spec and churn out bytes, then you're not going to have enough interest in what you're doing to do it well. So from the global perspective, it is very important. From a personal perspective, why should you be doing work you don't enjoy? It is important if you are going to commit this much to a job that you enjoy it.

Andy Hunt: The idea of artistic freedom is important because it promotes quality. As an example, suppose you're carving a gargoyle up in the corner of this building. The original spec either says nothing or says you're making a straight on gargoyle just like these others. But you notice something because you're right there on the ground. You realize, "Oh look, if I curve the gargoyle's mouth this way, the rain would come down here and go there. That would be better." You're better able to react locally to conditions the designers probably didn't know about, didn't forsee, had no knowledge of. If you're in charge of that gargoyle, you can do something about that, and make a better overall end product.

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