P070: Be That Giant

Editor’s note: This essay references Mad Men but does not contain any spoilers. I’m still only halfway through season six.

Today I read an essay from Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, that is an excerpt from the book Getting There: A Book of Mentors. Weiner details the ups and downs of the seven-year gap between when he wrote the pitch for Mad Men and when it got green-lighted at AMC. A riveting tale in its own right, Weiner uses the story to illustrate a broader point about one of the great myths of creativity:

“Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them.”

The idea of the creative genius belching out fully-formed masterpieces is an egregious falsehood perpetuated by those who’ve already “made it” and are more concerned with their own mythology than the pursuit of art. And just as “Screw You, I’ve Got Mine” is no way to run a country, it’s no way to contribute to the arts.

I say “contribute” because art does not exist in a vacuum. Anyone who has plugged in an electric guitar owes a debt of gratitude to Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Putting pen to paper? Fitzgerald, Twain, Shakespeare. Dreaming of striking it rich on Twitch? You’ve got PewDiePie and The Wizard to thank for paving your way. This great, bubbling stew of influence sustains the artist, and their creations go back into the broth, enhancing it for future generations.

This line of thinking was captured brilliantly in Austin Kleon’s book, “Show Your Work,” but as someone who’s work is primarily expressed in the digital form, I’m especially fond of Craig Mod’s incredible photo-essay “The Digital-Physical.” In it, Mod takes the screenshots, git commit logs, comps, sketches and notes that went into making Flipboard for iPhone, and compiles them into a 276 page, 8 lb. book as a memento for the development team. A behind-the-scenes of the behind-the-scenes, if you will. But more importantly than the artifact was the intuition that led to the creation of this book, because no creative output is as inscrutable as the that of a programmer.

Voilà! C’est fini!

A computer program can only exist in one of two states: either it works or it doesn’t. And while the existence of bugs seems to contradict that statement, anyone who has made peace with the idea that bugs are a fundamental element of all programs can see that the process of evolving a program from a jumble of disconnected components and syntax errors into something resembling the objective is where the lion’s share of the work is.

So often, this work goes undocumented, invisible to the outside world. This relentless polishing, iterating over a codebase over and over and over is what separates a top developer from a merely effective one. And when the fruits of that labor are finally revealed, it is natural for the developer to deliver a theatrical flourish, an acknowledgement of the work invested. But that impulse holds back the craft, as it harkens back the old M-word: “Magic.”

Developers aren’t magicians, and they don’t spew forth fully formed programs built from some ineffable personal skill fused with copious amounts of Mountain Dew. Development is a craft that can be learned. As a developer, it’s your responsibility to show your work–bring your teammates behind the curtain, contribute to open source projects, become a mentor. Be that giant so that others may stand on your shoulders.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron