Why to Join a Software Craftsmanship Group

Like other professional community groups, a software craftsmanship group is supposed to offer benefits that would make a working professional take time from their schedule to attend. These benefits come in many forms: networking, support, feedback, education, self-improvement, and the list goes on. Not all of these benefits will resonate with everyone, and there are plenty that I did not name applying to many individuals and situations. A software craftsmanship group can supplement or replace an existing group that you’re attending.

A common complaint that I hear from attendees of other groups is about how the discussions at dinner after the meeting is the most worthwhile part of the meeting. When I hear this, my first instinct is that these people need to start going to software craftsmanship meetings in addition to or instead of their current groups.

What is Software Craftsmanship?

Software craftsmanship is often described as a movement in the software industry of like-minded people who believe in a set of values which can improve the software we write. The Software Craftsmanship Manifesto describes in what these like-minded individuals believe.

I’ve often found it interesting how the Software Craftsmanship movement seems to be an extension of the agile software development movement. I and most of the members of the Hudson Software Craftsmanship group are all developers who either work at companies follow some form of agile development or are trying to move towards it. In fact the 4 main values described in the Software Craftsmanship Manifesto specifically describe how in the attempt to achieve the values described by the Agile Software Manifesto these ones were found to be indispensible. It is the idea that pursuing one set of values that have proven to be very useful, another set has been found to be extremely valuable.

Dispelling Misinformation

There are some people who have bad opinions of software craftsmanship, and I’d like to take some time to address some of those concerns incase any readers have heard of them or share them.

It’s not elitist.

I’ve heard software craftsmanship referred to as being elitist. In my experience, this is entirely not the case. I would believe that there are people among the community that fit this description, but those people would be outliers. We are welcoming of people of all skill levels who are looking to write cleaner, better software. I for one don’t even think that everyone will or even should be software craftsmen. If you enjoy the way you’re doing this, by all means continue. I don’t believe that my methods, practices, values, and beliefs are any better than anyone else’s. We are a group that shares our beliefs and want to work together to improve ourselves.

It’s not ALT.NET.

I’ve heard Software Craftsmanship compared to ALT.NET by some people, and I can see why the comparison would be made. Both are movements in the software industry to try to do things better than we have been doing them in the past. The ALT.NET community is like-minded individuals in the .NET community who are against the direction, guidance, and tooling that has/had been coming from Microsoft. While I do not follow that guidance either, I am not openly against it. In fact, I realize that the methods that I believe in and use in my own development will not work for everyone.

Software Craftsmen will help each other move away from that tooling and guidance, because the people we are helping want to move away from it. For many developers the control-based, do everything for me approach that often comes with that tooling is perfectly acceptable. There are many developers who are not going to follow the SOLID principles, and they’re not going to be inverting dependencies and writing unit tests either. That’s OK! Other people are not wrong just because I think I can write better code by doing things differently.

It’s not just about code.

Many developers are afraid that software craftsmanship places too much of a focus on writing code. From looking at software craftsmanship from the outside, this is a very valid argument to make. It is, however, mostly based on what is made visible from outside.

The aspects of a software craftsmanship group meeting which people go home and blog about tend to be the katas, exercises, and techniques. Why? Because it is not as easy to bottle up a great blog post on an open discussion among a large group as it is to post about some cool programming exercise. Our community as a whole also tends to really like posts showing source code, so people return from the meeting and post their exercise results. We’re more about thinking and improving our entire development process than just code.

We focus on the micro through programming as well as the macro through community involvement. We focus on how to improve as a business, how to work better with our clients, customers, and peers, and how to do all of this slowly with manageable, incremental change.

What Happens at a Craftsmanship Group?

Our main focus at a software craftsmanship group is to reinforce the skills, beliefs, values, and principles of our members. We have discussions, which are based on topics in the industry. We want everyone thinking, questioning, and improving. We don’t want you to even accept things that other craftsmen tell you. Go to the meeting ready to question others. We need to back up our thoughts and ideas, and most of all we need to be willing to try new things.

Why lightning talks?

Most user groups feature a single person transferring knowledge to the masses who attend the group. In these situations the knowledge flow is unidirectional, and we don’t find that to be as effective as having people of all skill levels discussing the topic. A lightning talk is a great way to introduce a topic by spending 5 to 10 minutes discussing introducing the topic briefly. These talks then open the floor for immediate continued discussion or become ideas for later open discussions at the group.

Why open discussions?

Discussions allow us to share our ideas and get feedback on them. We will often discuss values and principles of craftsmanship. We also use this as a chance to discuss how we’re each solving some similar challenge we’re all facing. Some topics we’ve done in the past revolve around automated unit testing. These often are focused on some type and how to do them better. I recently was involved in a craftsmanship discussion revolving around the concept of BDD and went from low to high level. Some topics deal less with coding than the infrastructure we as developers depend on like our continuous build implementations and our database change management systems. Other common topics deal with how to get buy-in from a business to follow the practices that we believe to be beneficial.

Why code katas?

A kata is designed to give you a consistent experience doing the right things. Like the martial arts equivalent it is not something you would use in a real-world situation, but it is designed to emulate one. It goes through a set of steps where a master of the art has imparted wisdom by showing the steps to be taken when presented with certain challenges. These katas will let you know how and why the master takes certain steps at certain points and are designed to be repeated so that we immediately respond with the correct solution when presented with a certain challenge.

Why programming exercises?

We have all learned to program, and we need to keep ourselves in practice. No, our day jobs are not practice. Exercises are designed to give us practice so that we have recent experience solving challenging problems to assist in our everyday programming tasks. Many people believe that comparing software developers to musicians or athletes is a stretch, and I will agree with them that there are great differences between these groups. We are, however, all skilled individuals and if we’re even remotely similar to the musician or the athlete, then we need to also be practicing.

I’ve been presented with many real-world challenges where I say, “I can use the same technique here that I use when solving the Greed kata.” That being one example of a programming exercise where I have tried solutions and found some that work very well with the practices and techniques that help me write cleaner code.

What should I do next?

Find a local group of software craftsmen. If there is not one in your area or the one in your area is more than an hour drive to get to, then start one. Gauge the interest, and start making noise about it. Other people interested will join the group, share their ideas, experiences, and trials, and keep the group interesting.

Good luck!

The Software Craftsmanship group that I run is located in Hudson, OH. We are between Cleveland and Akron, and we have members from both of those locations. If you're in the area, we look forward to seeing you at one of our events.