Software development is the newest blue collar trade

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Traditionally computer science is a white color discipline, a cerebral activity beyond that of the typical trades. While not all computer scientists are software programmers, most of the things people touch on their computers and on the Internet run code that developers wrote. Developers may have worn white collars at one time, but are now more than ever better served if we dress them in blue.

Understanding what makes great software developers needs to become a top imperative or everyone’s desire to successfully leverage the developing economies of the globe will result in the next decade of disastrous implementation. We will all literally be digging out of the worst collection of computer code the world has ever seen. This is not to say programmers in developing countries are not capable of creating great code – clearly that would be too broad a generalization. What I am saying is that there is a core set of existing developers – waves one through five – that have created the software and network conscious of the world. That experience and knowledge is not easily portable locally or internationally. More needs to be done to consider the ways in which we grow developers. The fact that everyone is quick to move to emerging markets is simply exacerbating the fact that the Western world contains much of the building blocks everyone takes for granted.

There are classes of programmers that have never written the basic code to connect a web application to a database. They use any number of indirect frameworks to achieve what is a relatively straight forward activity. It may be laborious, but it also results in a development team that understands what is happening at every moment in the system. Delegate to someone else and your risk is that whatever was to be done is performed less well than if you performed the task yourself. There are plenty that will tell you it is a given since it’s the only way to scale yourself as a person. When we are talking about computer code the exposure is as great as the worst written code. Perfection is not required, but ignorance is worse.

I recently got passed the essay Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford and with a little positioning should be the playbook for America’s future – possibly, eventually, the world. Crawford does a delightful job exploring what it means to be engaged in a trade – its scarcity, importance and value.

My recent gap in blog posts reflects that my life got too busy to support the usual post – selling a house, buying a house, moving and building out a studio to compliment the changing lifestyle. I share this because it is likely the first time I took on the challenge of building something by hand that I would usually create with money. There is no shortage of cerebral activity in building and Shop Class as Soulcraft makes this point well. It is easy to liken it to software programming in that you need to understand fundamental principles – logic, algorithms, design patterns etc. This is not much different than a builder understanding material strength, stability and appropriate use. Programmers feel the same pride and satisfaction from code well-built as a trade person elegantly executing their craft. While there is a notion of mentorship and hierarchy the trades have a more structured concept around apprenticeship. This is a critical aspect acknowledging that some of the knowledge to be had is hard if not impossible to distil or consume in traditional forms. Experience efficiently encodes more information that our conscious mind processes, yet our beings embody the knowledge.

There is no shortage of computer programmers in the world, yet there is a dearth of individual and shared development experiences. We can’t expect everyone to live through the trials of personal computers or the Internet, but we do need to bridge the gap or not only will we repeat history, but we won’t have enough people to fix it all when it is broken. No different, Crawford points out that with the dwindling ranks in the trades the individual that understands how to do something with their minds and hands will become the most important person in the village. While I clearly agree for the need to embrace the world’s crafts, I believe we are facing an epidemic that must be reversed. Just as the established markets have created a pile of stinking code, failing to pass knowledge to newer generations, we extend the work to nations that have even less shared knowledge. We must apply the methods of the trades to software development or fail faster before the shared knowledge ceases to exist.

I will wear a blue collar any day since it transcends what use to imply class and embodies a healthier balance of being. Read Shop Class as Soulcraft and figure out how to help fix us before we are broken.