In my many years in the software development industry, not to mention my many years in the software development education industry, I’ve been continually amazed by the tacit acceptance of the fact that many (most?) software developers are terrible writers. The university programmes don’t require anything beyond a simple English 101 class, and companies simply accept the fact that many of their people are, at best, barely literate. It’s a sad, stupid state of affairs, and I figured I’d take a few minutes to explain why I think it’s a detriment to the industry as a whole.
You see, in my mind, at it’s core, software development is fundamentally an act of communication. Of course, there’s the obvious fact that a developer must take their ideas and communicate them to the computer, which then executes them. But as developers, we must also communicate ideas to our users, through the user interfaces we build. And we must also communicate ideas to other developers through the code itself, not to mention the comments therein (after all, as any developer will tell you, development is as much, if not more, about reading code as it is writing it).
Similarly, writing is, obviously, an act of communication. When a writer writes, their goal is to take amorphous, ephemeral ideas, and turn them into concrete, written words which preserve the essence of those ideas and communicates them to the reader.
Now, in order to communicate complex ideas through written word, one must master some very basic skills:
- The ability to clearly conceptualize an idea and transform it into a more concrete expression.
- The ability to break down that idea into simple parts that can be easily explained.
- The ability to explain those parts in a way the reader can understand.
- The ability to take those parts, now explained, and to synthesize them into a coherent whole.
Does this sound anything at all like software development?
Furthermore, a capable writer pays attention to detail. He is as much concerned with the way an idea is expressed as he is with communicating the idea itself. For example, I could’ve written this entire post in short, terse sentences with no paragraph breaks. But I care as much about how these ideas are communicated as I do about the actual act of communicating them.
Similarly, in the area of software development, while two developers may derive the same solution to a problem, one may choose to write terse, difficult to read code that’s poorly formatted and organized, and consequently difficult to maintain, while the other may produce code that’s precisely the opposite.
By now you can probably guess what I’m getting at. I would surmise that you would find a correlation between developers who are skilled writers, and those who produce code that’s clean, readable, and maintainable. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. I’m sure there are many many developers out there that are great writers yet terrible developers, and vice versa. But I would contend that, statistically, you would find a correlation between writing skill and development skill, and at their core, these two disciplines are really very similar.
So why is it that we accept such poor writing skill in the development community? Quite honestly, I’m not sure. I think part of the issue is the fundamental belief that software development is an engineering skill, a process that’s dominated purely by technological problems that must be solved with technological solutions. I suspect it’s also driven by a false dichotomy, the idea that writers are “thinkers” and technologists are “doers”. But I truly believe it needs to change. Meanwhile, the next time I interview someone, I may be tempted to ask them to write a short essay on a topic of my choice…
“… and he just, I dunno, disappeared,” he finished, taking a sip of his coffee, steam rising from the dark surface and condensing on his thick glasses.
“What do you mean, ‘disappeared’,” the man across the table asked, a puzzled frown creasing the dark skin of his forehead as he reached for his own up. “Where did he go? What happened to him? People don’t just disappear, you know.”
“Honestly,” the other man said, putting down his mug, “I don’t know. He just left. Took his coat and his keys, hopped in his car,” he reached over and grabbed the nearly empty sugar dispenser, pouring the remaining contents into his cup as he continued, white granules scattering on the dark surface of the table between them, like islands in a sea, “and left. Never said a word to his friends, his wife, his kids… no one.” The clink of spoon against porcelain punctuated the silence that followed, the dark liquid swirling and eddying in his cup.
“I just don’t understand,” his companion said, taking a sip of his coffee, “How could someone do that? Just up and leave like that? I could never do that,” I think, anyway, a voice in his mind said. The man in the glasses shrugged, himself unsure. “I mean, I talked to Mike, he seemed like such a nice guy. And then he does this? Seems like a dick move to me.”
“Who knows,” the other man said, “maybe he had his reasons. Really, I didn’t know him that well. Did you?” The man across the table shook his head, “See? Heck, no one seemed to. So who knows what happened. For all we know his wife beat him or cheated on him or something. But, whatever happened, he’s gone now, and I’m bettin’ he ain’t comin’ back.”
“Bizarre,” his companion said, his finger tapping against his cup, the rhythmic thumping setting off waves in his coffee. “People just don’t disappear like that!”
So on Wednestday evening, Lenore and I came down with cold symptoms at virtually the exact same time… personally, I blame Lenore. That, or the public transit system. Nothing like a bus packed full of people who like to cough without covering their mouths to spread the germs. Anyway, the end result is that we spent Thursday, Friday, and most of Saturday laid up. It’s been fun. Real fun.
Anyway, to alleviate some boredom, I took Wednesday evening to pick up a couple new games for my DS (I actually lost a couple games at one point… but I’d rather not get into that right now. It’s a bit of a sore spot), in order to pass the time. Sure, I could watch TV, but there’s only so much on the PVR to view. Or I could read, though reading requires concentration, and concentration requires a clear head, which is frustrated greatly by a cold. So, I figured, mindless entertainment, that’s where it’s at.
Well, what did I pick up? The following:
- Yoshi’s Island DS
- Mario Kart1
- Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time
Anyway, Yoshi’s Island is a pretty straight-forward port of Yoshi’s Island 2 for the SNES. An excellent platformer. I’ll skip Mario Kart. And then we have PiT, which is a Mario-themed RPG, and another excellent game.
But, what I haven’t done is written much in the last few days. I took Wednesday off for whatever reason. Thursday and Friday I was too sick to even consider sitting down at the computer. And today, I find myself struggling, trying to get back into the story I’m working on. Which is an interesting lesson: writing every day is important for honing one’s skills. But it’s also very important when working on a longer piece, as one can easily lose momentum and fall out of the mood of the piece, or worse, one might lift one’s head up and begin having doubts… maybe it really does suck. Maybe it’s just a stupid idea. Blah blah blah. It’s definitely a challenge.
So, hopefully today or tomorrow, I can try and remedy the situation. Step one, I think, is to read a little more Dickens. He always seems to inspire me.
This would be one of those games I thought I lost. Until, that is, I discovered it in my DS. So if anyone’s looking for a discount copy of Mario Kart DS, gimme a call… ↩
I think I just finished a chapter in the middle of a story. I don’t know how it happened, really… I started writing a few days ago, focusing on this idea that I’ve been making reference to incessantly (or, perhaps tantilizingly? Yeah… didn’t think so), and today, after hitting the 3500 word mark and the end of what I thought was the first chapter, I decided to stop and ask myself how I wanted to progress. Suddenly, as I sat there staring at the monitor, it dawned on me that what I’d just written more correctly belongs in the middle of a larger work… what the heck??
So now I get to start all over, this time at the actual beginning… hopefully, when I reach the middle, things will fit together all nice and neat. Somehow, I doubt it.
If one were to use Orkut or Myspace as a population sample, one might come to conclusion that the bulk of the people in this world are, in fact, functionally illiterate…
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