Woodworking for Quality

Why does a woodworker make a piece of furniture, boat or anything else for that matter? A avid woodworker may produce many examples of each category, to what end to they take upon this endeavor?

Perhaps every chair they make has a slightly improved design, maybe they execute an old design better then they could before or they may use different materials.

With every new chair comes increased understanding. A different back on chair #4, or a different joint on chair #6. As more chairs are produced the woodworker converges on Quality. Each chair becomes a better experience for those who have the pleasure of experiencing it.

A woodworker works both to increase the Quality of the objects they produce, and because they relish the act of making something from raw materials. The goal is almost never to create a specific chair of a specific level of Quality, but rather to make the next chair even better than the last. If each chair can be better then the last, then there are always small tweaks to be made that make a specific chair better for its context.

Architects make similar choices, the trade offs they make change how people experience the space. The question becomes: What tools do we have at our disposal to elicit a specific experience and what experience do we want people to have?

Quality woodworking does not rely only upon the technical skills of carving or making a sturdy join. It’s also about knowing what to carve, and understanding the context of where a piece will reside.

Traditionally a young Woodworker would increase their skills by taking an apprenticeship with a master woodworker. The quicker the young woodworker improves the more time they spend making objects of Quality. The young woodworker doesn’t only learn how to build a chair, but rather learns how to craft a chair of Quality. One that people enjoy using and tell their family, friends and colleagues about.

This way of approaching woodworking also applies to software. As with woodworking the goal of software is not to produce a piece of software, but rather to produce a quality piece of software.

Similar to a young woodworker, my goal is to improve the quality of software I create. The best way to do that is to find the steepest learning curve possible. I want to help build things that I’m proud of, and that others value.

In the past Architecture or Woodworking would have been the best places to apply an interest in Quality design. Now the best place is software. The best place to make an impact in the modern world is increasingly software.

There’s a quotation from Bret Victor that I like to refer back to on occasion.

People turn to software to learn the meaning of words, learn which countries were bombed today, and learn to cook a paella. They decide which music to play, which photos to print, and what to do tonight, tomorrow, and Tuesday at 2:00. They keep track of a dozen simultaneous conversations in private correspondence, and maybe hundreds in public arenas. They browse for a book for Mom, a coat for Dad, and a car for Junior. They look for an apartment to live in, and a bed for that apartment, and perhaps a companion for the bed. They ask when the movie is playing, and how to drive to the theater, and where to eat before the movie, and where to get cash before they eat. They ask for numbers, from simple sums to financial projections. They ask about money, from stock quote histories to bank account balances. They ask why their car isn’t working and how to fix it, why their child is sick and how to fix her. They no longer sit on the porch speculating about the weather—they ask software.

Bret’s quotation illustrates the impact software has, and the responsibility of software engineers to design software of Quality.

With producing Quality the focus of a software developer, what applications of Quality software are the most impact full?

It seems like focusing on one sector or another is less value then focusing on the specific application. The key question for any given application is how well the piece of software aligns with the users mental model. Broadly speaking the interaction between humans and software can be split into three distinct segments.

  • Communication: When a user communicates with another user through a software interaction.
  • Manipulation: When a user manipulates an object they have a mental model of inside a computer.
  • Education: When a user uses software to probe the world and understand their surroundings.

I am less interested in designing interactions between machines, and more focused on what a person and computer can do together. How do we make those interactions more empowering, expressive and productive?

Infused in this question is a question of representation. I care about how the representation is presented to the computer as well as how it is represented to the user. The representation to the computer seems more impact full and scalable to me.

If you know of places that think about software in a similar manner, produce software of high quality and would be a good place to learn the ways of the bits please let me know.

Email or @devinmcgloin