Beautiful code, expert minds

Last year Greg Wilson wrote to tell me about the collection of essays that he and Andy Oram were compiling into what has now become the book Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think:

The idea is to get a bunch of well-known and not-yet-well-known programmers to select medium-sized pieces of code (100-200 lines) that they think are particularly elegant, and spend 2500 words or so explaining why.

The 600-page tome arrived recently, and as I’ve been reading it I’m struck once again by the theme of narrating the work. Of the chapters I’ve read so far, three are especially vivid examples of that: Karl Fogel’s exegesis of the stream-oriented interface used in Subversion to convey changes across the network, Alberto Savoia’s meditation on the process of software testing, and Lincoln Stein’s sketches (“code stories”) that he writes for himself as he develops a new bioinformatics module.

Although this is a book by programmers and for programmers, the method of narrating the work process is, in principle, much more widely applicable. In practice, it’s something that’s especially easy and natural for programmers to do.

It’s easy because a programmer’s work product — in intermediate and final form — happens to be lines of text that can be printed in a book or published online.

It’s natural because programmers have been embedded for longer than most other professionals in a work process that’s fundamentally enabled by electronic publishing. We’ve been sharing code, and conversations about code, online for decades.

Most work processes don’t lend themselves to the sort of direct capture and literal representation that you see in Beautiful Code. Not yet, anyway. I think that can and will change, though, and I think two emerging forms of media will be powerful agents of change.

One of those forms is Internet video, which enables the capture and sharing of many kinds of physical-world expertise. The other is screencasting, which does the same for virtual-world expertise. Narration of work in these forms won’t be able to be printed in a book. But it will be just as valuable as the narration in Beautiful Code, and for the same reasons. Access to expert minds is just inherently valuable. We’re entering an era in which we’ll be able to access many more — and many different kinds of — expert minds. I’m looking forward to it. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the access I have now to the 38 minds that Greg and Andy have collected for this book.

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4 thoughts on “Beautiful code, expert minds

  1. This may sound odd, but what caught my attention was the strikingly beautiful book cover.

    I want to say more about it, but I can’t find the words.

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