RailsConf Europe: (Prag-) Dave Thomas

Posted by Nick Sieger Tue, 18 Sep 2007 08:08:34 GMT

(Written from Dave’s perspective, in the first person, but paraphrased)

What is a relevant topic in Germany? Engineering. Except there’s no such thing as software engineering. The software equivalent of building a bridge is taking a whole lot of dirt that fills in a hole.

So what makes engineering good? I look for elegance and beauty.

Fred Brooks -- Mythical Man-Month. Not a single thing in software engineering has changed in the 30 years since the book was written. Go out and order it tonight if you haven’t read it.

We are privileged, because we get to start with nothing. Anything we can conceive of, we can create. And so, we suffer the same problems as poets suffer.

Writer’s block: a blank page standing in the way of getting started. Painting: a blank canvas without structure or form. Software project: a blank editor buffer.

Leonardo was commissioned to build a statue. But, having never bronzed in his life, he picked up a scrap of paper and drew sketches. He’s prototyping on paper, but in reality he’s prototyping in his mind, getting his brain thinking about what he’s doing.

We could do more of this experimentation. Whiteboard, index cards, we eschew them for scaffolding or other crutches. But we could think of more ideas if we got away from the familiar and tossed around new, fresh ideas.

The idea that we sit down and start coding the application is crazy. We don’t know what it’s supposed to be. Why should we fool ourselves into thinking that this works?

Artists draw cartoons, often a fully rendered version of a painting. If they don’t like the cartoon, it survives, but the final product probably takes a different form.

With Rails we can do rapid end-to-end prototyping. Scaffolding helps with this, and it probably won’t make it into the end result.

So start anyway, and be prepared to throw it away. Write tests, use them as tracer bullets. And act on worry. Listen to the inner voice that tells you when something is wrong.

Sistine Chapel: brilliant example of modularization. It shows you how to conceive of doing a huge project without the fret of focusing on the entire thing.

Another example: comic books. You’re splitting up the product into time slices. Limit how much you do, and leave open the possibility of continuing at a later day. Know when to stop.

Satisfy the customer. Compare portraits to pictures. The best portraits, while not always faithful to the real image of the subject, still achieve the goal of satisfying the customer.

There is art in engineering, and engineering in art. Neither is an either/or proposition. Art and engineering are mutually supportive, in that you can’t have one without another.

With Ruby and Rails, we have a responsibility to uphold. Rails is a canvas, so be an artist. Create something great. But we also should create something beautiful. Sign your name by your work, and take pride in it.

Tags ,  | 3 comments


  1. Avatar sri said about 22 hours later:

    Thank you, thanks you, thanks you for this information.

  2. Avatar steven said 5 days later:

    that sistine chapel comment - d’you possibly have any more info on that?

  3. Avatar thoran said 6 days later:

    I have long considered programming to be a craft and did so even while the attempt was being made to indoctrinate me with the notion that it was science.

    The nexus of engineering and art is craft.

    I’d lost interest in programming until it was clear that the theoreticians were increasingly being undermined in favour of that which works and that my approach is not undervalued.

    What works is people who have a love of what they do and develop their craft; that little bit of engineering and that little bit of art.