Is Programming Art?

A tale of creativity, passion, and good wine

Sean Hickey
Sep 30, 2013 · 2 min read

Christopher Pitt asked a simple question: Can a developer be called a creative?

I am talking about whether systems architects or PHP developers (like me!) can be called a creative, even though we predominantly deal with code, and our grasp of colours, layout and iconography is limited to the unicode characters we appropriate for console and log messages.

To be honest it never crossed my mind that programming was anything but a creative pursuit, and I’m happy to call myself an artist to anyone that will listen, but I understand why civilians (non-programmers) could see things differently.

A girlfriend once told me programming “looks boring” when I suggested learning a bit of JavaScript and HTML, and many years ago I was roommates with a painter, who, on hearing me proclaim my code was artwork, replied with a condescending, “Yeah, uh huh, sure!”

Yes, I get it. To the casual observer it may appear terribly dreary staring at a monitor all day and night, with the steady drone of click, click, click coming from a keyboard, and I understand why a classic artist (writer, painter, musician) may scoff at the idea of programming as an art form. No one is going to look at my finished work in a gallery, and discuss the artist’s soul while sipping expensive wine.

What people don’t see is the explosion of activity happening in my head while I stare at those bright monitors with my bloodshot eyes. I’ve never surfed the waves of Hawaii, but I get an adrenaline rush from conquering problems. I’ve never played a hit single to a crowed of adoring fans — and certainly never had a hot groupie throw their bra at me — but I know the feeling of being taken to a higher conscience level when I get into a groove.

I know passion and excitement, and I know what it’s like to feel drained, exhausted, high, and elated when a project is finished. Most importantly though, I know how nerve-racking it can be to finally give my work to the world. Will people love it or hate it? Will people understand and appreciate the nuance of my work, or will they think it’s boring and stupid?

Make no mistake about it, programming is a creative pursuit, and I am an artist. I may work with a keyboard and IDE instead of a paint brush or guitar, but I have the same passion and dreams as an artist, and I live and die by the acceptance or rejection of my work by fans. My work may never be seen in a Soho art gallery, but it will be seen by millions of people.

Heck, I even occasionally sit back and admire my code while sipping on some expensive wine.

    Sean Hickey

    Written by

    A funkadelic coding monk on the path to engineering nirvana.