Writing Software as opposed to Building Software

I read this article this morning and was rather impressed.




The Right Tool for the Job

Something that has been on my mind for a number of months now is the ‘rightness’ of a tool. When I ┬áhad left secondary school with no idea what I wanted to do, my first job was in a textile mill. It was an interesting place to work because the majority of the looms were made in the Nineteenth century. It was like stepping back in time, although thankfully there wasn’t a requirement to do three hours work before breakfast and there were metal guards in place so there was less chance of getting trapped in a machine.

I was employed as a tackler, which can be taken to mean loom mechanic. I learned how to fix looms and how to work with wood. This particular mill produced woven narrow fabrics used in upholstery, probably one reason why it had lasted as long as it had. Each loom had at least sixteen shuttles made from box wood or hornbeam and quite often they needed repairs. One of the reasons for using box or hornbeam is because they have very close grains, which means they don’t produce splinters.

I wasn’t particularly skilled at working with wood at school but I gained a real appreciation for it in the mill. Pulling machines to pieces and putting them back together was real work. Some of the jacquard machines were very complex and required patience and skill to repair.

I mention all this because I think it is easier to visualise a carpenter having a favourite plane or a favourite chisel. It would be a tool that fitted so nicely into his hands that it would feel like an extension of them. He could concentrate on his work with no distraction or irritation from the tool he was using.

This should be a goal we should strive for when writing software. It should be a good fit, it should feel right and it shouldn’t get in the way. All too often when we write software we either don’t know how it is going to be used or we’ve been given that many requirements that it is impossible to produce a tool that will satisfy any. There is a reason why Swiss Army knives have not replaced corkscrews, screwdrivers, scissors and pen-knives. The saying ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ springs to mind.

It is though worth bearing in mind that one carpenter’s favourite chisel is another’s least favourite. A tool that helps one person can hinder another. Yet, most chisels will do the job and nine times out of ten if you buy a chisel it’ll be ideal for the job. One of the main reasons for this is that chisels and those who use them have been around for many years. We know what they should look like and what a person using them hopes to achieve.

There’s a lot to be said for a tool that feels right and just works.


Jazz by Toni Morrison

I have been reading rather a lot of books recently, which is a good thing. For most of February and March I’ve been working very long hours and reading has been a fantastic way to un-wind and relax. I enjoy writing and am in the middle of writing another novel but what with my work-load and stress I’ve found it very difficult to just switch off from work; unless of course I pick up a book.

I devour books, not literally I should hasten to add. What I mean is that when I start a book I tend to devote myself to it; reading late into the night, reading it whilst I have breakfast; in fact finding any spare moment possible to read. I enjoy reading. Always have done. I remember as a child being told off for reading when there is work to be done but to me if you are reading you are working. You are learning.

The only problem I had with Toni Morrison’s book, Jazz, was me to be honest. I race through books I want to know what happens. Books, that I enjoy I quite often re-read because now I know what happens I want to enjoy the journey. With Jazz the point is to enjoy the journey, not race to get to the destination. There isn’t really a destination because in the first few pages you already know where that is.

Now, I’ve never read anything by Toni Morrison before although I’ve heard and read a great deal about her; and knowing that she has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature makes me suspect that she can write a bit! And I’m pleased to say that after reading Jazz I’m still of that opinion. One thing that struck me was her writing style. Young writers are often told that they must find their voice but I wonder about Toni Morrison. I’ll try and explain. When I write I need to write often to stay focussed on the story and to keep the same style and the same flow. So, with my (admittedly limited) experience of writing I wonder how Toni Morrison has managed to write this book.

The quotes on the copy of Jazz that I have talk about Toni Morrison’s poetry and I must admit I rather dismissed them as hyperbole – I better praise this Nobel Laureate! Well, it turns out I was wrong. Jazz does feel like a very long lyrical poem and it might be interesting to know if anyone has compared Toni Morrison’s Jazz to Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. The voices are very different and the songs they are singing are also very different but both still sing, which not many books do. This brings me back to wondering about how Toni Morrison wrote this book. I think she must have entered a sort of trance every time she picked up her pen to write this book.

The fact that she keeps her unique voice, never missing a note as it were, is remarkable but far better than that Jazz is a good story. It talks about people, their lives and how their experiences shape their actions. It is a song of loneliness and redemption; a song of pain and loss, a song of hope and forgiveness.

I was rather fortunate when reading this book to realise quite quickly that I needed to slow down and take the book on its terms not mine. I really enjoyed this book and I’m looking forward to reading it again one day soon.