OOPSLA, Creativity, and Practice

I’m home for 2 weeks after spending a week at San Diego at OOPSLA and last week teaching object design. It is good to be home as I can now configure my new tablet PC and start using it. It’s bad to be home as it is raining too hard and spoiling my plans for getting my perennial garden in shape for the winter. But truth be told, the rain leaves me hunkered down inside, forcing me to write, to reflect, and start new projects.

OOPSLA this year was full of creative types: George Platts led a number of workshops and experiences; Robert Hass, past poet-laureate of the USA, gave the keynote. This was no surprise with Dick Gabriel as program chair. Dick is a man of many talents. In addition to his heavy-duty computer side—having made Lisp implementations practical being one of Dick’s early accomplishments—he is a published poet, musician, patterns instigator, Sun fellow, and scholar. A highlight for me was getting Dick to autograph his new book of poetry Drive On and then to read it on the plane ride home.

Sunday morning I attended the tutorial, “How has the arts, sports or life stimulated, inspired and informed your work in computer science?” led by George Platts. George is an artist and game master who is a well known creativity/fun instigator at software pattern conferences. As it was a Sunday morning tutorial, I expected George to drive (and me to sit and quietly soak up his words). Silly me. After showing us an incredible film of an amazing panoply of pyrotechnics, mechanical feats, oozing chemical reactions crafted to produce a Rube Goldberg-like perpetual motion machine, we sat down to discuss how art or sports stimulated or inspired our work.

Two thoughts struck me about how arts and sports have stimulated my work. In college I fenced (with a foil—don’t ever call it a sword). Much preparation went into a competition. We repeatedly practiced standard moves (all with Italian names). Only after much practice with attacks and counter-attack moves would we do practice competitions. Being a left hander gave me a distinct advantage as my body was not where it was expected to be. Lefties fencing lefties are on equal footing as we, too, are accustomed to fencing right handers. So even while I was at an advantage (being short makes for a smaller target and being a lefty makes for an unusual target) during the heat of a competition I’d forget much and just go on raw instinct. Only when moves and countermoves become kinetic memory do you get really good. I never got good as I spent too much time getting my programs to work instead of devoting energy to perfecting my fencing technique.

Bringing up this notion of practice led us to discuss what constitutes “practice” or “repetition of scales” for software developers. What do you developers or designers or analysts do over and over and over again until it becomes second nature and makes them good at what they do? Programming? Applying design patterns? Writing use cases? Learning how to ask probing questions? Well maybe. I’m not sure we software types have a clear equivalent of scales. Does repeatedly programming yet another JSP make you a better at it? Building consistency into your design makes your design better. But does it make you a better designer?

A second artful inspiration I’ve had is from Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Artist Within. Betty has inspired me as a teacher of design in how I try to break down design ideas and thinking for others. Betty claims that people are crappy artists because they don’t know how to see, and that by learning special ways of seeing, most of us could be able to become passable renderers of what we see. She believes everyone can be taught how to draw likenesses of what they see. I had a really bad pottery teacher in college who asked us to “feel what was in the clay and then create”. I was frustrated and created lumpy awkward pots because I lacked technique and this instructor didn’t teach any technique. As a teacher of software design I don’t like it when my students create lumpy malformed objects. I teach them a number of techniques for seeing good formations of objects—role stereotypes, a smattering of patterns, the notion of domain entities and value objects from Eric Evans’ writing, a sense of control style choices. But sometimes these ways of seeing don’t click in and my students create strange designs. Or worse yet they get frustrated and just want to know what steps to go through to create passable designs; to heck with all this technique. All I can say is that design takes practice and reflection and technique. I don’t know how to teach design as a rote process.

As a result of George’s tutorial, I got to know Henry Barager of Instantiated Software Inc. Besides being a skilled software architect, Henry’s a whiz at cryptic crosswords. Over lunch one day at OOPSLA Henry taught me about cryptic crosswords by working through one with me (Henry did most of the work but he patiently let me solve a few entries after explaining the basic idea). The key to solving a cryptic crossword entry is to figure out how to separate the word or word phrase you are solving for from the encrypting part. Then there are clues in the encrypting instructions part which may lead you to take some letters and jumble them (key words may imply that you create an anagram, wrap one word inside another, truncate a word, etc.) or not. For example: Flower came up. The answer is Rose. Rose is a flower, and “came up” is another meaning for rose. Simple, right? Well try this: Piece of technology in broken device tossed out. Give up? It is evicted (tossed out = evicted, that’s the definition. The rest of the encrypting part is this: A piece of technology is the “t”, broken device is “evice d”, device jumbled or broken).

Explaining the idea behind cryptic crosswords is fairly simple. Solving entries takes a lot of effort and getting your brain in a problem solving frame of mind. Solving them in real time as Henry does requires skill, experience, and intelligence. Teaching others how to solve them takes another kind of skill. The same goes for object design. Learning object concepts is trivial. Crafting simplistic solutions is, too. Putting together elegant designs that work for complex problems is much harder. It requires practices, reflection, as well as learning techniques from masters who shouldn’t try to solve all the hard problems for you. I wish I’d had someone who would’ve demonstrated and helped me practice good technique when I was learning to shape pottery or to draw. I was fortunate to rub shoulders with some very bright Smalltalk folks when I was learning how to think in objects. Thanks to all the folks at Tektronix and Instantiations for teaching me how to see and build object designs.

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