Joel Spolsky on programmer creativity

Joel has a new article entitled “Hitting the High Notes”, which probably deserves a link.

I happen to fully agree with Joel, that good programming is about finding that “clever solution,” not just a solution that “barely works.” These little epiphanies may not just be the best product of good programming, but also the reward–another striking similarity to conventional artists. I started to realize this similarity myself a few years ago, when I scribbled in one of my notebooks that programming actually seems a lot like sculpting, in that the task is both highly creative and highly technical, where the goals are simultaneously to solve a complex problem and produce something “beautiful” (or, in programmerspeak, one might say “elegant”).

This ideas of mine didn’t find themselves blooming until I came across Frederick Brooks (who, in fairness, Joel mentions), in whose wonderful collection of essays is a very useful distinction between two components to programming. The more important one, says Brooks, is the essential component, which should be contrasted to the accidental. The essential problem to programming is that it is fundamentally a creative act, and as such it requires long periods of uninterrupted thought and even a spark of inspiration to result in amazing products. The accidental component to programming is everything else that incurs cost in time: dealing with the programming languages, the text editors, the compilers, software revision systems, documentation, and all the other software development tools. Brooks’s theory (which, in my opinion, held) is that there was “no silver bullet” for programmer productivity; that even if major leaps are made to reduce the effect of the accidental problem, the essential problem would remain, and without an improvement in the essential, there would be no order of magnitude improvement in productivity.

In other words (and metaphors), even though word processing is a lot easier than typing–which was itself a lot easier than writing by hand–it doesn’t seem that any of these advancements in “text editing” made the creation of great novels much easier, since it is the content of a novel that matters–presumably–and that comes only from within the author.

But Joel is mostly right: to fight the challenges inherent to the essential problem, one must have:

  • A great work environment
  • Talented colleagues
  • Challenging problems
  • Visionary direction
  • Lots of alone time for each developer
  • Lots of brainstorm time among developers

There are probably a couple of others that deserve to be on there, but that’s a pretty good list in itself.

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