A Case for Developers as Artisans, Not Just Artists

There’s no exact parallel for how and what software developers create. But in a recent article on Venture Beat, Mulesoft’s James Donelan wrote an excellent piece on how developers are like artists. It’s an excellent perspective, and I highly recommend it.

While I find the idea of describing developers as artists sound, I’d like to take it one step further. I’d prefer that developers be perceived more as artists than engineers, or, heaven forbid, assembly line workers. However, I think there’s a linguistic subtlety here that can help us even better understand developers.

For years I’ve described developers as engineers, sure, but artisans first. Why do I draw a comparison between artists and artisans, though? What’s an artisan vs. an artist?

Artisans

Image via Creative Commons license from Fusion of Horizons on Flickr.

 

Artisans build something that will be useful. They are masters of their tools. They take how the object or creation will be used in mind. They create something that has practical application in the lives of those who will use it, and do so with beauty and elegance.

Like an artist, they imbue the work with their personalities, but their goal is to make a beautiful, useful object, not for self expression.

And that’s where the artist metaphor breaks down. Our common perception of an artist is one driven by self-expression, someone who wants to share their view of the world. (Of course, one can argue there are commercial artists, and commercially-motivated artists, but we’re speaking in general categories.) An artisan, by contrast, can’t help but have some self-expression in the mix … but is motivated by creating a work that will be enjoyed and used by others.

Artisans seek beauty and elegance in their creations as they seek the  most practical, usable creations. Perhaps what an artisan creates may need to have structural integrity as well as beauty — perhaps as in a stonemason creating a large fireplace. The mason — an artisan — understands the limits of his tools and the materials with which he has to work, and creates a usable, practical work within those limits. The parallels with a software developer are obvious. Developers, like artisans, must understand what their tools, the technology, can do. And they must create something that the ultimate audience, or user, will be able to enjoy while achieving the desired result. That sounds a bit academic, but ‘desired result’ simply means that the thing created should perform as advertised, be it a fireplace that warms the room or a website that arranges hotel reservations.

At Developer Media, we believe that understanding subtleties like this one is the key to better understanding developers. And better understanding developers enables marketers to craft products and messages that resonate with developers — a “win” for everyone.

What’s your take on developers as artisans?

9 Responses to “A Case for Developers as Artisans, Not Just Artists”

  1. As someone who practices both programming and art-making, I definitely find it difficult to accept the programmer as artist metaphor. I enjoy both activities and have been drawn to programming because I am drawn by the excitement of creating something, and though I am an amateur programmer, I can appreciate the elegance of a solution, design, or algorithm.

    But because there is creativity and beauty and elegance involved in programming, still the experience of programming and of making art, speaking experientially, is qualitatively different. Art making is a process of exploration, experimentation and discovery. And what is discovered is not of utilitarian value. As you say, it might be called ‘self expression’ as the end, or you could use other language to describe this non-tangible goal.

    The comparison of programmer and artisan that you have made, however, in my opinion, is right on target. Nice idea and thanks for writing about this more ‘spiritual’ side of programming,- an endeavor which is often thought of as cold and technical – yet has a warmer side that might be easily overlooked, otherwise.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Jon. It’s a challenge to find the right comparison, but I think it’s important that people understand developers. Plus — like what artisans create, the code developers create can erode when exposed to the elements as well!

      Reply
  2. excellent, in my country the artisans of silver made your own tools, developers continuously make our own tools.

    Reply
  3. I like to think of developers like chefs. There are a lot of technical requirements around cooking, and you have to produce something that people will like to eat. But no one tells chefs “why you can’t you just engineer something that meets the nutritional requirements without trying to make it beautiful” like they do developers. Instead, there’s a whole industry of books and stores and TV shows for home cooks who appreciate the art.

    Reply
  4. James Gatannah

    Speaking as a professional, I’ve long thought that idea of designing/developing software as engineering was almost as wrong as thinking of it as art–and probably even more pretentious. Personally, I prefer the term “software craftsman” to describe what I do at my day job.

    So, obviously, I really like this suggestion. I’m not sure I’ll switch, but I’m going to consider it. Thanks for a nice read.

    Reply
    • Thanks, James. I’ve often used the word “craftsman” as well, and to some degree I think those words are interchangeable, although there are undoubtedly subtle differences. Thanks for the kind words!

      Reply
  5. Bertrand LECLERC

    I agree with tour idea but i think a lot of people in France (almost) see developpers only as workers, nor artisans nor artists, but only workers.

    Reply

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