The problems with ‘crafting’ code

A few months ago, Mark Boulton and I had a very brief chat about the use of the word craft applied to (web) design and development, and how we both disagreed with and disliked it. Mark pipped me to the post with his brilliant article on the subject (by a number of months) but after a tweet I made earlier today, I thought I would write down my own thoughts as well…

What ‘craft’ means

The instant problem I have with the word craft applied to web design and, more specifically, development, is the image it brings. Craft is, by its very nature, slow, meticulous, bespoke, indulgent, self-serving, and inefficient. Code should be none of these things. Rather, good code should be none of these things. Code should be robust, scalable, efficient, performant, reusable, testable (if appropriate), measurable, quantifiable. Code is not an art form, it is a means to an end, and to craft it is entirely unsuitable.

Further, and on a very personal and opinionated level, I just feel the word is so pretentious. The idea of applying such a ‘quaint’ term to such a 21st Century industry seems like nothing more than an attempt to be a bit cute. Personally, I find the notion that pixels and what are essentially ones-and-zeroes can somehow be ‘crafted’ quite obviously absurd. We continually use some of the most powerful and cutting edge technology currently available to us, and then try and back-port it to manufacturing methods that—for the most part—died out entire centuries ago. It just seems so odd and indulgent.

Quality

When a lot of people talk about craft, or say that they hand-craft their code, what they really mean is that it is of a certain quality, and this is a good thing. Quality is paramount, but ‘crafting’ your code is not a guarantee of that. If anything, crafted items tend to contain flaws, inaccuracies and nuances (All items are hand-crafted. Well why haven’t you found the best way of making them, and then made them all to that exact same standard?). In the web development world, we call these bugs, and these are a bad thing.

If you want to say your code is of a certain quality, talk about the aspects of it that matter; talk about its scalability, talk about its performance, talk about its architecture. These are all things that matter. Clients don’t care if their site was ‘meticulously hand-crafted’, they care that their site isn’t going to break every few weeks, and that it won’t cost them a lot of money to maintain.

Treating code as a craft is entirely the wrong angle and approach to take. It’s a self-serving, masturbatory word that implies folly and indulgence. It implies love and attachment rather than quality, and, as Mark puts very well in his piece, spending a client’s money on your indulgence is irresponsible and unprofessional.

When people say they hand-craft their code, I don’t disagree with their sentiment, I disagree with their wording. I have no doubt that people put a lot of effort into their work, and take a lot of pride in it. I take an incredible amount of pride in my work, but I would never say I ‘craft’ anything about it. I consider it, I test it, I try it, I measure it, and—if it doesn’t work—I rip it up and I start again; I don’t get attached to it, I don’t fall in love with it.

I love my job, and take my work very seriously, but to start treating what are essentially ones and zeroes as a craft, or a labour of love, is entirely misguided. Our job is more serious than craft, which implies hobby, or pastime. I don’t want my plumber to ‘lovingly hand-craft his U-bends’, I want a plumber who knows how to solve my problem properly, efficiently, and lastingly. If he loves his work, that’s a bonus—and usually an indicator that he’ll do a great job—but it’s not how to actually measure the quality of his work; fixing my leak for good is how I’ll measure that. We as web developers are no different.

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A disservice

I also feel that the word craft actually plays down our role. A word which conjures images—as Mark painted—of someone sat in a shed, isolated, poring over the fine details of something in an almost obsessive manner, does not appropriately describe what we do day in, day out; we solve peoples’ business problems using design and code. Surely that sounds far more impressive and accurate than saying we craft things, no?

People employ us because they have a problem and we are part of the solution. We’re employed because we can design something that will engage more users who will spend more money, or because we can build websites that are fast, and work on any device you care to throw at it, and we base that on the objective. We measure it, we know it will work, and if it doesn’t work, we start again. We don’t design and build to serve ourselves, we design and build to serve our clients (whoever they may be, even ourselves).

Lastly, this is not an exercise in I’m right, you’re wrong, this is entirely my own opinion, and it is one I have held and pondered for a long time. Your opinion may be entirely different, and that’s fine. I’m not trying to be right, or to tell people they’re wrong to use the word ‘craft’, I’m just putting forward the reasons I feel the word is unsuitable, and why I would never refer to myself or my work as a craftsman, or crafted.

So, please let me be clear; I mean absolutely no offence to anyone at all. I am not belittling anyone’s work, suggesting that individuals are pretentious or self-serving, or suggesting that peoples’ work is not of good quality. My point is simply that I feel there are better, more appropriate words than ‘craft’ to describe that quality, particularly when talking about something like code.

An alternative?

There’s a move now toward people calling themselves software engineers; they engineer their code. For all this brings with it similar levels of pretentiousness, it is—to my mind—at least a step in the right direction:

Crafted:

  • Slow
  • Meticulous
  • Bespoke
  • Inefficient
  • Time-consuming
  • Costly
  • Indulgent
  • Self-serving

Engineered:

  • Tested
  • Scalable
  • Rapid
  • Efficient
  • Measured
  • Robust
  • Practical
  • Pragmatic

I know to which camp I would rather belong.

In short, I don’t have any qualms with people wanting to make a point of the quality of their work, and the care and attention they put into it, I just feel there are far better, more appropriate ways of describing if than words like craft. Yes, put the same amount of effort and pride into your work, but perhaps there’s a better way of wording it…?


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