Archive for the ‘craftsmanship’ Category

Tools in the Studio

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Obtiva’s Studio is busy churning out projects and I thought it would be good to let the rest of the world what we are up to. Most of our rails projects are now using CruiseControl.rb, Zentest, restful_authentication, gems, query_trace, attachment_fu, Rcov, redgreen, exception_notification and mocha. While the list may seem long we are always looking for new tools. If you have any suggestions please comment.

As a team we’ve setup growl integrations for cruise, autotest and redgreen which is strongly suggested. Make TDD easier for yourself. As a team we really need to put out a tutorial on how to set all of this up properly. In my opinion you are doing yourself a disservice without them.

A quick side note, grep -r is mostly dead around here due to ack. Try ack, you’ll love it.


We’ve also pushed a lot of our interest into JRuby and Erlang. We are all extremely excited for the opportunities those two tools will provide. JRuby’s memory usage have our mouths drooling. If you are not paying attention to Charles Nutter’s blog you are missing out! The pace of everything surrounding JRuby is astounding. Merb and Sinatra are on our radar.


Joseph Leddy is deep in the bowels of ActiveWarehouse and FasterCSV where he is making millions of SQL rows consumable for our clients. Joseph is also exploring ETL Tool. He’s been aggressively implementing state machines alongside access control also. Tools unique to Joseph are query_analyzer and tail_logs which I’m eager to take a look at. Joseph recently implemented some multi-server file uploading using BackgrounDRB with tests!

Nate Jackson’s work involves sphinx via acts_as_sphinx mashed into will_paginate and aspell. He’s created an intelligent word suggestor for misspelled words and phrases using raspell. Nate spent a day or two scraping the web with hpricot, WWW:Mechanize , csspool and sass. Nate’s also pushing the studio into NetBeans for Ruby, RSpec, Dvorak and Leopard. Nate likes to include svn_tools and dot.rake in his projects.

Dave Hoover‘s working on innovative interfaces with Ajax and BackgroundDRB. Dave has picked up AR::Extensions as a hammer for memory and speed intensive ActiveRecord imports. He’s also weaving together fleximage and attachment_fu in a few projects. I don’t know much about it yet, but Dave seemed please with ZIYA and Flash chart delivery. Dave’s spent some of his time plunging into Sinatra too. Dave’s editor of choice is Textmate. Other things in his camp include: liquid, RedCloth, and chronic.

Dave also released a gem called TamTam using hpricot that will inline css. You can find the gem here. Dave and Nate paired up to create Obtiva’s first OS X widget here. I paired up with Dave to create a rails plugin for TamTam too which is named inline_css.

Ryan Platte has put together some sweet mashups with GWT, AIM Presence API, BackgrounDRb and ActiveScaffold. While Ryan wasn’t a huge fan of ActiveScaffold I was impressed. His editor of choice is rails.vim. For testing he is using UnitRecord to speed up his test suite among its other benefits. Ryan is now promoting the use of factories over fixtures. Ryan and Gareth demoed Ruby Prof to the rest of the studio. Ryan introduced me to the wonderful world of GNU Screen. The little exposure I’ve had to his projects has me very impressed.

Gareth Reeves is doing work in Event Driven Architecture and Event Driven Programming. He introduced me to testing Java with jMock.

I’ve been working with Amazon ECS, Streamlined and a session bridge between rails and Perl’s CGI Session. I strapped subdomain/SEO love onto a project using request_routing, url_for_domain, and acts_as_sluggable. Nate and I pulled ActiveMerchant into a project which was much less painful than expected. If you’re doing complex condition building my tool of choice is condition_builder. I also extended restful_authentication so that it can support authentication for multiple types of users.

Written by syntatic

November 30, 2007 at 9:42 am

Craftsmanship as a Bridge

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As a third grade teacher, my wife has an instant connection with anyone she meets. She can captivate anyone for endless hours with the thousands of stories her classroom provides. People want to know what we are teaching our children, they want to know if there is still a smelly kid, and if the schools still teach children how to play The Oregon Trail, which they do. For most, talking with my wife is a nostalgic experience.

As a software developer, I generally get blank stares and questions about how to fix some problem caused by a website that was accidentally visited. Few people feel nostalgic when I explain what I do everyday in front of a computer. A year ago, conversations about my job never developed or bloomed since I couldn’t bridge the gap from what I do into their lives.

Thinking and speaking about software development in terms of craftsmanship has bridged that gap for me. It gives non-technical people a door into understanding what I do everyday. It even has me excited to talk about software development with friends and family. Treating my job as a craft or a group of skills that are artistic practices draws needed parallels to other disciplines.

Usually, I explain how blacksmithing and programming correlate. Both crafts start with very basic materials iron ore and data. Blacksmiths smelt the ore and combine it with an alloy which determines the properties of the metal. Programmers data cleanse and apply a data type which determines the properties of the data. The two disciplines are heavily dependent on strong tool sets also. Wikipedia has an interesting tidbit concerning a blacksmith’s tool set:

Over the centuries blacksmiths have taken no little pride in the fact that theirs is one of the few crafts that allows them to make the tools that are used for their craft.

The same can be said for software developers since the frameworks, scripts and commands used to build software are made up of software. However, the greatest parallels between the two crafts do not come from similar processes.

I find that the biggest eureka moments when talking with non-technical people come from the connotations of blacksmithing. Software is forged. Applications are bent, punched and hammered into shape. Different programs are welded together seamlessly. Before delivery everything must be hardened and tempered. The process is dirty and it is hot. The final product is sculpted to be both aesthetic and functional. The emotional associations the previous sentences draw upon are foreign to most when thinking about software development.

One context non-technical people discover is that blacksmiths are rare now and the craft is archaic. Shouldn’t it be more related to the assembly line or some other post industrial revolution set of practices? No, software development began in 1940 or later. Relatively speaking, the discipline is not that old. Today’s view of blacksmithing describes the current state of software development. A quote from a well known programming book applies here:

One hundred years from now, our engineering may seem as archaic as the techniques used by medieval cathedral builders seem to today’s civil engineers, while our craftsmanship will still be honored. —The Pragmatic Programmer, Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt

There is so much untapped potential that lay ahead.

Another context that I usually bring up is that of apprenticeship or more specifically craftsmanship. At the studio we follow a system of apprenticeship that is similar to craft guilds which were common when blacksmiths could be found in every town. We regularly share new practices, techniques and tools as we refine our craft together. Our job descriptions and roles mimic those of apprentice, journeyman and master also. If you’re more interested in software development as craftsmanship here are some good places to start: the next big thing, software craftsmanship.

One final side note, I’m beginning to read more about software development as an artistic medium. Few non-programmers realize how much computer languages mimic human language. Computer languages have verbs, nouns, grammar, and hundreds of other syntactic structures that parallel human languages. Programming can be a poetic experience when a few lines of code are succinct and powerful. If you’re more interested in programming as poetry join me and take a look: The Poetry of Programming, Diving for Perls – the poetry of programming, Programmers as Poets.

Written by syntatic

July 13, 2007 at 12:15 am