The Artisan Developer (or Designer, or Product Manager)

Hi there! Welcome to a new year and to my new blog. Since this is my first post here, I guess the best thing to do is to say something about myself and my intentions for this blog. I am an experienced software engineer and technical leader; I have a PhD in computer science and 20 years experience. I’ve worked with large companies and small, including a company that started small (approx 12 people) and grew to over 500 people during the time period that I worked there. I’m also a certified scrum master.

I have some horror stories — and I’m sure that you do too — about a clunky feature that you worked on but were embarrassed by. Or you worked really hard on a project only to see it bomb in the market or get canceled. This happens to all of us. When it happens too many times, we lose faith in our employers, mentally check-out, and start looking for another job. Over time this gradual disillusionment at the poor direction we are given as dedicated technical people who take pride in our work has gnawed away at me, especially when I really loved working for that same company just a few years earlier.

But after a while I grew tired of doing random tech work for random companies — for pursuing other people’s goals and not really paying much heed to my own. What were my goals? I mean something more specific than “career progression”. If I were to be remembered for something, what would I want that to be? Jack Ma famously said “small companies have dreams, most big companies only have KPIs”. In other words, I yearned for something more; for something better. What might that look like? Here are a few thoughts about what inspires me:

  • Connection, or purpose. I like it when I’m connected to my customers’ needs and wants directly — when I can hear directly from them what problem they are trying to solve and how my software helps them to do that. Kathy Sierra calls this “creating the Minimum Badass User”. Connecting directly to value and benefits for customers (and thus creating trickle-down prosperity) really resonates with me. It is these times that I am happiest in my work.
  • Making things of quality. The last big thing that I made outside of work was a house. I had help though — I hired an architect, a builder and a landscaper, but I was very hands-on and there are a great many things in my house that I either organized directly or built with my own hands. The whole DIY movement is rooted in pride in one’s own handiwork. In fact, studies have shown that people put a value premium on a product if they made it themselves, i.e. they feel a connection with it.
  • Being inspired, or making something remarkable. One example of this is making a product that is itself remarkable — Tesla makes cars that don’t require petrol (gasoline), SpaceX makes rocketships, and Virgin Galactic is working on space tourism. These are indeed fantastical ideas. Another example to take a fairly pedestrian product or activity but to do it masterfully. The Aeron chair redefined the concept of an office chair, Google’s approach to search completely dominated every search engine that preceded it, and master distillers take a common spirit such as whisky or gin and reformulate it into a truly delicious drink. Whilst we associate quality with craftsmanship, we associate remarkability with great design — the thing that the product does is masterful, and worth remarking about!
  • Recognition and reward. When we do our best work, if it goes unnoticed or unrewarded (or both) long enough we think “why bother?” and mentally check out. However, if people are both recognized and rewarded (e.g. financial benefits, promotion, market success, or optimally a combination of all three) then they are motivated to stay with your company and continue doing their best work. With many employees leaving tech companies after only 2–3 years that is something worth thinking about. (I don’t advocate for only rewarding the one “best” employee in a competition; everyone else who tried hard but misses out on the prize becomes demotivated. If you don’t also reward those others from time to time the lesson of this ruthless competition becomes “can’t win, so don’t try”.) I conjecture that lack of recognition and reward from the market is one of the leading root causes of founders and early employees giving up on startups. Also note that recognition and reward by itself is necessary but not sufficient — it cannot replace a lack of the other points above, and nor can those other points replace a lack of reward.
  • Mastery. To me, mastery is bringing together the above aspects in the same product or service. If you make things that you are really proud of, if you create an emotional connection with the people who gain value from them, and if you’re successful in this endeavor, than I call that mastery. I imagine that artisans feel this way about their work. If you look at speeches and interviews given by successful people who seem really happy in their work, you see this theme of mastery come up again and again — they connect with a community of like-minded customers, they make something of value that helps those customers, and they achieve some measure of success through this undertaking. Everyone is happy.

To me, the word “artisan” is associated with mastery, craftsmanship and pride. That is to say, it’s personal. Hence, in my mind, the Artisan Developer (or Designer, or Product Manager) is most interested in how they can craft quality software that solves their customers’ problems, and that their customers love to use. So it’s my intention both with this blog and with artisan.co to explore how we all might become software artisans, as opposed to only a lucky few stumbling into it but not knowing what exactly they did to get there. I look forward to seeing how that develops.

* As it turns out, Dan Pink wrote about many of the above points in his best-selling book “Drive”. He lists three main drivers of high performance: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Seth Godin wrote about remarkability in his book “The Purple Cow”.