2018-05-30Self, TalksComments


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A metaphor is a figure of speech where you describe something in terms of something else. For example, when Katy Perry sings “Baby, you’re a firework” she doesn’t mean you’re an explosive for use on bonfire night — she’s saying you’ve got a spark inside you, you should “ignite the light”, “show ‘em what you’re worth”, “shoot across the sky” and “make ‘em go, Oh, oh, oh!”.

You’re spectacular — a firework.

This post considers some metaphors for computer programming. I hope we can gain some insights into what we do by looking at it from a different angle. In other words: what are we like?

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We write software. That’s not a metaphor though. It’s literally what we do. We write, edit, review and publish texts. In scrum teams we even work on stories. It’s not particularly helpful.

It’s not unhelpful either, unlike the next couple of examples, for which I blame recruitment agents.

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An advert for a programming ninja isn’t meant to attract a Japanese mercenary trained in espionage and assassination, must have 2 years PHP experience — it’s meant to make a dull job sound exciting. Similarly a rockstar is unwelcome on most software teams. Creativity and even attitude may be useful. Not so the rampant ego and trantrums.

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How about sports? We’re agile. We work in teams on sprints scoring (story) points. In our scrum meetings we discuss tactics.

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Is coding like cooking? We assemble the right ingredients and follow tried and trusted recipes. Our products are consumed and adjusted to taste based on feedback.

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Software grows organically. Tending to a codebase is a form of gardening — we nurture new features and allow them to blossom, all the while pruning dead code and trying to keep bugs under control. Release cycles are seasonal. Success depends on both weather and climate.

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If Computer Science is the discipline, The Art of Computer Programming, supplies the detail, and the practice is often described as a Craft. There’s a progression, from journeyman to master, during which we learn the tools of our trade. Although end users may never see the elegant code which underpins the interface they use, we take pride in our work and like to think they can sense our attention to detail.

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The most popular metaphor is construction. It’s there in our job titles: Architect, Project Manager, Engineer. We plan, assemble, build, test, deliver. Unfortunately this metaphor fails to recognise the supple, fluid nature of software — its softness.

If you’re building a house you start with foundations and then the walls go up, at which point it becomes impossible to change the foundations. If you’re building software, you could start with the wiring and then put the roof on. There’s nothing stopping you swapping the foundations at any point: running on another platform, or switching the memory manager, for example, is no more difficult than changing the user interface styling.

Or consider a software service, supported by a collaboration of microservices which are continually developed, reconfigured, replaced. That’s not construction. It’s communication.

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Communication is the metaphor I’m going to champion. Code communicates, via compiler or interpreter, with the platform. It communicates with us via editor and browser. We use text, pictures, speech, gestures. We share rooms, screens, thoughts. We listen to our users. We engage with our community.

At the start of this post I dismissed “writing” as too literal. Beyond the literal and beneath the words, it’s evident we’re in the language business: not just programming languages, but also the dialect of our APIs and modules, the metaphors which describe and define our designs. Design patterns are simply shared metaphor — factory, visitor, facade — and a codebase communicates by shaping and extending its own local metaphors.

Software is the development of metaphor. We are metaphormers.

As Katy Perry would say: Oh, oh, oh!

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[email protected] (Thomas Guest)

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