Developers Are Artists

October 7, 2012 / Mad Coding

Software development is, in part, an artistic practice. As a developer, your brush is a keyboard; your canvas, a text editor. You derive satisfaction from crafting solutions to real problems, and it is your creativity that brings the solutions to life.

Beautiful Code

Development is necessarily a balancing act of competing concerns:

Yes, we care very much about beauty in our code, but unlike most other concerns, it is subjective by nature. Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Teaching how to design beautiful code is as challenging as teaching “the practice of software development.” Each of us is left to ourselves to figure it out, either by following the example of others, or stumbling upon it ourselves in a blinding aura of caffeine-induced revelation. More often than not, at least in my experience, it’s the former.

So… Artists?

As tempting as it is to draw upon the analogy of being “under-appreciated in our time,” it is noteworthy that developers often experience a similar creative arc as artists of other disciplines. A great deal of code makes its initial appearance as a “s****y first draft,” to quote Anne LaMott. Before that, it may even have begun its life as a simple whiteboard doodle. Eventually, we revise and refactor that first idea as we gain a fuller understanding of the problem, and the best code eventually emerges. More often than not, it also happens to be more elegant code, the rough edges having been smoothed out, and the redundancy reduced. If all goes well, the developer can put down her brush at this point and take a step back to take in the full scope of her work.

$break-small: 320px;
$break-large: 1024px;

@mixin respond-to($media) {
  @if $media == handhelds {
    @media only screen and (max-width: $break-small) { @content; }
  }
  @else if $media == medium-screens {
    @media only screen and (min-width: $break-small + 1) and (max-width: $break-large - 1) { @content; }
  }
  @else if $media == wide-screens {
    @media only screen and (min-width: $break-large) { @content; }
  }
}

.profile-pic {
  float: left;
  width: 250px;
  @include respond-to(handhelds) { width: 100% ;}
  @include respond-to(medium-screens) { width: 125px; }
  @include respond-to(wide-screens) { float: none; }
}

In the example above (from The Sass Way), the respond-to Sass mixin provides a more attractive way to specify @media queries in CSS, abstracting away some of the ugliness for the author. Obviously, abstraction isn’t always the best course of action, but oftentimes the biggest reason for doing it is to end up with a cleaner codebase.

Beauty often takes care of itself.

We must remember that beauty in code is a means, not an end, to our satisfaction in development work. Most of us provide our services for hire. In practical terms, each of those other competing concerns has a real link to business value, and will tend to trump “beauty” when the two are in conflict. However, I find that if everything else properly accounted for, beauty will often take care of itself in the process.

We’ve been talking about this for a while now.

Gutierrez’ post particularly resonates with me, despite its being the least complementary to my point of view, because I have observed many of the tendencies he lists in myself as well as in many of my peers. Developers need to be aware that subjective coding style can be conflated with beauty on occasion, and it often has little to do with code quality. However, I do not agree that all code is crap.

While it is true that much of what we work on is, at best, ephemeral even if it does end up seeing the light of day, what we gain in experience will stay with us for future opportunities to create beautiful code.