Adolfo Ochagavía

The Joys of the Craft

Today would have been the birthday of one of my computer heroes, Fred Brooks, who passed away a few years ago aged 91. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the luck to meet him in person (living on a different part of the planet definitely didn’t help). Still, I did meet him through his book The Mythical Man-Month, which I read during my student years. Programming lore masters held it as an all-time classic, so my curiosity was kindled… and I was not disappointed!

There’s lots to say about Brooks’ book, but I’ll skip that to keep the article short1. I just wanted to quote a section of the first chapter that resonated deeply with me, because his words read like an ode to programming2. They echo in many ways my own thoughts, but are expressed with more beauty than I could wish to achieve myself. Therefore, dear reader, now you have been brought by fate to this corner of the internet, let me delight you with the following poem in prose.

The Joys of the Craft

Why is programming fun? What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward?

First is the sheer joy of making things. As the child delights in his mud pie, so the adult enjoys building things, especially things of his own design. I think this delight must be an image of God’s delight in making things, a delight shown in the distinctness and newness of each leaf and each snowflake.

Second is the pleasure of making things that are useful to other people. Deep within, we want others to use our work and to find it helpful. In this respect the programming system is not essentially different from the child’s first clay pencil holder “for Daddy’s office.”

Third is the fascination of fashioning complex puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts and watching them work in subtle cycles, playing out the consequences of principles built in from the beginning. The programmed computer has all the fascination of the pinball machine or the jukebox mechanism, carried to the ultimate.

Fourth is the joy of always learning, which springs from the nonrepeating nature of the task. In one way or another the problem is ever new, and its solver learns something: sometimes practical, sometimes theoretical, and sometimes both.

Finally, there is the delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by the exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures….

Yet the program construct, unlike the poet’s words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.

Programming then is fun because it gratifies creative longings built deep within us and delights sensibilities we have in common with all men.

Fred Brooks

  1. You can always go to the Wikipedia article linked above, or go and actually read the book! ↩︎

  2. Note that Brooks isn’t a naive optimist who only saw the attractive side of programming. He also wrote a section called The Woes of the Craft, where he mentions the less pleasant aspects of developing software. You can find it here, in case you want to read it. ↩︎