Friday, August 19, 2005

Creativity, Simplicity and Art

I've been thinking some more about "software as a creative process'. Good software can be a thing of beauty. Simple idioms and patterns repeated to produce something that is both complex, yet simple. Much like the double helix structure of DNA or fractal patterns in maths.

Beauty in software has two main manifestations. Firstly in its' conceptualisation. Knowing what problem to solve, and what the solution should be, is a creative process. One instantly recognises a good solution to a problem. A good solution is often simple, and a good fit for it's intended purpose. When going through open source projects on sourceforge, good project ideas immediately jump out at you. A project that meets a real need, and is simple.

The second manifestation, I think, is in the structure of the solution itself. Object orientated languages offer great scope for efficient, elegant solutions, where functionality is implemented once and once only. Dynamic OO languages like Smalltalk, offer even further scope for elegance and simplicity. A dynamic language can greatly improve productivity, allowing time for trying things out. Learning through discovery, leads to increased beauty.

Unfortunately, the beauty of a software concept, although visible to the business, is often overlooked. Very few business leaders spend time agonising over whether a proposed software concept is beautiful. Software just isn't thought of that way. More important to most business leaders is the projected return on investment. I've never calculated ROI, but I'm sure that it is a difficult thing to predict. Also I would hazard a guess that projects that actually do provide a good ROI are both beautiful and simple in concept.

Worst news is that the beauty of the final implementation is not visible to the business at all. The first the business becomes aware that a software solution may be less than beautiful, is when bugs begin to emerge, or when maintenance is more difficult and expensive than anticipated. The developers know when a software solution is ugly, but unfortunately, the business hold the purse strings and make the final decision.

Implementing beautiful software is a creative skill that can be taught. Much like painting or playing a musical instrument. The art of software development is well established, and there is a gamut of practices and disciplines for developers to draw upon. Agile development recognises the creative nature of software development, and promotes practices that support creativity. In contrast software conceptualisation, seems to be less well understood. The nearest I've seen to a disciplined approach to deciding what software to build is the approach outlined by SCRUM, namely keep it small and keep it simple. Beyond this there doesn't seem to be much guidance around unfortunately.

So where is the software industry today?

  • Well we've got managers who would like to think of software development as a defined process. Gant charts and LOC estimates, leaving little scope for discovery and creativity.
  • We've got developers, who tend to be more interested in technology, then delivering business value.
  • Where beauty is visible, in conceptualisation, the art is not well understood.
  • Where the art is well developed, in software implementation, the resultant beauty is not visible.
  • The business care little for conceptual beauty, as they do not appreciate its' importance. Developers can avoid discussing implementation beauty honestly with business people as the implementation is no visible.
It would be interesting to see what business leaders from creative industries like fashion and music would make of the software industry. I'm sure they could teach us a lot.

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