Who are we that make software?

We who spend all of our time in front of a computer involved in the production of software are often quick to pigeon-hole ourselves. You probably self-classify as a developer or designer, maybe an engineer or artist if you got a college degree and think highly of it.

But like many other things, it’s all messy now. I’d say I spend sixty percent of my time doing general “developer” stuff, twenty-five percent doing something one could approximately call “engineering”, and split the rest between marketing, business, and design.

Does self-identifying with any one of these roles limit how we think or approach doing what we do?

Sloppy classifications

Consider these heuristics for placing people into categories:

  • You build things that face other people
  • You are making things that are constrained by rulesets defined largely by Newtonian mechanics
  • You are making things where trade-offs between aesthetics and affordances are made
  • Other people build things on top of your things

None of these are useful at all. Were you to provide any one as a definition of what an engineer or designer is, you could probably get some heads nodding. So there’s something appealing about each of these statements. But none of them provide a pleasing definition or guideline for when you’re doing engineering, development, or design.

Part of the answer to these classifications is that we all do everything. Developers strive to build software that fits within the aesthetic of the code around it or their own personal aesthetic. Designers operate within the limitations of human perception and cognition. Engineers are constrained by both of these but will throw either out in a heart beat to improve upon the efficiencies that are important to the project at hand.

We’re all hybrids

The notion of developing designers and designing developers is by no means new. A few examples:

But consider Kent Beck, renowned for his work building and thinking about the process of building software. He often talks about the design of software, considering trade-offs, aesthetics, and affordances just like a designer does. But he’s also been spending a lot of time recently iterating on businesses, trying out new ideas, and writing about the process and essence of converting an idea into a sustainable business.

Or consider Shaun Inman. He’s writing games as a one-man show. He splits his time between producing the music, drawing pixel art, and coding up collision detection systems. That’s a pretty neat cocktail of talents.

If you’ve ever bikeshedded a design discussion or suggested how a feature might work, you’re a hybrid. Ever refer to yourself as a specializing generalist? That’s a hybrid.

Directed thought

If you’ve self-classified one way or the other, there are little things you might do that have large effects on your thinking. You socialize with those who are like classified, use the tools of that classification, and concern yourself with the classic problems that consume those working in your area of specialization.

If you’re not careful, you could box yourself in too much, become too specialized. While there are opportunities for well-chosen, tightly-focused specializations, they are few and far between. Specializing generalists are the order of the day.

Where do we get if we acknowledge that we’re all hybrids now? Suppose you’re aiming for a balance of sixty percent developer, twenty percent engineer, and twenty percent designer. Is it worth going whole-hog learning Emacs or Photoshop? Or is it better to learn less-capable but lower learning-curve tools like TextMate and Acorn? Should such a person concern themselves with the details of brand design and the implementation of persistent data structures, or is it more important to grasp those topics in a conversational manner?

Is it a better use of Shaun Inman’s time to dissect a Mahler symphony, do an expansive study of pixel art, or review the mechanisms Quake III used for detecting collisions? Is it a better use of Kent Beck’s time to build software and write about that process, to talk to people and integrate their problems into his way of developing software, or iterate on business ideas and share those experiences?

Here's the motivational part

So now that all of this is forehead-smackingly clear (right?!), where do we go from here? Personally, I’m using the idea to guide how much effort I put into teaching myself new tricks. I probably won’t go on a six-month algorithms kick anytime soon, but I might spend six months learning the pros and cons of various database systems or application frameworks. I’d love to spend a month just tinkering with typography, color, layout, and other visual design topics. I probably won’t sweat it if Emacs or Photoshop don’t integrate into my daily work too well, or prove impenetrable to my mind, since those tools imply workflows that aren’t top priority to me.

But that’s me; where should you go? If you don’t already have a good idea of what kind of hybrid you are, start noting how much time you spend on various sorts of tasks and think about whether you’d like to do more or less of them. Then, start taking action to realize a course correction.

You can be whatever kind of hybrid developer you want, it’s just a matter of putting in the time and effort.

Adam Keys @therealadam