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Why I choose to be a Node.js carpenter

A carpenter meticulously increasing the unit test coverage of his code. Photo by Burst.

In the early nineties I used to fall asleep to the fuzzy glow of the monochrome amber monitor of our tired 80286 and the murmur of its busy hard disk, compiling and linking my dad’s code written with Borland C. Some nights they would be accompanied by the comforting clacks of his IBM Model M keyboard. It wasn’t a big apartment, and my bedroom was the only place with enough space to set up his home office. Or maybe he wanted to draw my attention to those fascinating machines — which he successfully did.

Back then he used to work for a company that manufactured telecommunications equipment. He did — and still does — refer to himself as a programmer.

For some reason, he wasn’t very fond of the term developer. He never explained why. Over the years, my subjective interpretation of his feelings towards that word became a bit clearer: it was too much of a fancy term for something that, in his view, didn’t deserve to be overrated.

I program, therefore I am a programmer.

— Dad

He didn’t see his work as an art, but as a craft.

For some years now I’ve seen so many different shiny titles for the job that I do. Node.js ninja, Node.js wizard, Node.js hacker, Node.js evangelist. They all seem to imply some sort of an exotic, fantastic grandiosity for something that, being honest, isn’t that much of a big deal. The code I write or see on a daily basis pales in comparison with the finesse displayed in my dad’s programs.

I don’t want to be a ninja, or a wizard. I don’t engage in espionage, deception and surprise attacks. I don’t have magical powers or, worst case scenario, perform sleight of hand tricks to fool my audience.

If I have to pick a profession to participate in the medieval fantasy world built and sold to us by LinkedIn recruiters and disruptive startups, then let me be a carpenter.

Rietveld (center) and staff in front of his atelier, 1919. Photo: Eindhovens Dagblad.

Gerrit Thomas Rietveld (1888–1964) was the son of a carpenter who left school to work with his father. He became a prominent furniture designer and one of the principal members of the Dutch artistic movement called De Stijl.

One of his creations is the renowned Red and Blue Chair. The elements that conform this blocky chair were “excellently suited both for self-assembly furniture and for mass production, as they could be manufactured with the simplest mechanical means and were already available as standardized wood lengths”. It was not only suitable for mass production, but it could also be delivered to the client in a do-it-yourself kit easy to assemble at home.

The Red and Blue Chair. Picture by the Auckland Museum under the Creative Commons license Attribution 4.0 International.

His chair went beyond aesthetics and challenged the meaning of the word comfort.

One of the functions of Rietveld’s chairs, with their hard seats and backs, is to focus our senses, to make us alert and aware. Rietveld was not interested in conventional ideas of comfort (the 19th century armchair that relaxes you so much that you spill your coffee or fall asleep over your book). He wished to keep the sitter physically and mentally “toned up.”

— De Stijl, by Paul Overy, 1969

I became fascinated with the Red and Blue Chair since I first saw it displayed at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. An achievement of aesthetics ready to challenge the very definition of comfort, yet available to be built with the simplest and most common pieces of wood, even by people with no outstanding carpentry skills.

Carpenters rock. They serve a purpose. They build things that can be practical, beautiful. There is craft and there is art.

There’s nothing magical about the work I do. I strive to program things where the craft lives in the details, the small things — simple, reusable, pragmatic building blocks that are easy to put together in a meaningful way; and the art becomes visible when you zoom out and the whole becomes synergy — the end result is greater than the sum of its parts. Like Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chair.

That’s why I choose to be a Node.js carpenter.

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