Saturday, July 9, 2011

I <3 Robert C. Martin

Im reading Clean Code by Uncle Bob. I have read sections of this book before when it came out and actually had the pleasure of watching Robert Martin present it at SDWest in 2008. I've decided to read the whole thing.

A while ago, I read a blog post from someone who was arguing that software wasn't a craft but a trade. I believe the authors intention was to say that we software developers should recognize that the value of the software is the business value and thus we shouldn't wax philosophic about "elegance in design" or software aesthetics as that was all wasting time trying to get to the goal. I may be misrepresenting the author's intention. I couldn't find the post to link it.

In any case, I disagreed entirely with this opinion. While I agree that business value is the motivator-- the craft aspects such as aesthetics, conceptual purity, elegance, etc. All contribute to the solution and its extensibility and maintainability. Maybe we're just arguing over the definition of craft, trade, or art, but in any case I feel there is value in recognizing the challenge of good engineering for today and tomorrow. The masters do it almost effortlessly-- almost accidentally. That feels like art to me and thus should be labelled appropriately as craft.

To this point, clean code is more art than science and Mr. Martin has something to say about it that I really enjoyed:
Every system is built from a domain specific language designed by the programmers to describe their system. Functions are the verbs, classes are the nouns. This is not some throwback to the hideous old notion that the nouns and verbs in a requirements document are the first guess of the classes and functions of a system. Rather, this is a much older truth. The art of programming is, and always has been, the art of language design.

Master programmers think of systems as stories to be told rather than programs to be written. They use facilities of their chosen programming language to construct a much richer and more expressive language that can be used to tell that story. Part of that domain-specific language is the hierarchy of functions that describe all the actions that take place within that system. In an artful act of recursion those actions are written to use the very domain specific language they define to tell their own small part of the story.
So to argue that software is not art is to naively ignore the reality that language is hard and has a dramatic effect on the bottom line of your code base. How many software systems never change or never need to be understood after they are written? Such systems must not be very interesting or do anything important.

Let's recognize the art of good software engineering! It will motivate us to continue to improve if we recognize these things have a value.