Don’t Work on the Wrong Machine

Fred Brooks: Build one to throw away

My version: Build every one to throw away.

Fred Brooks’ classic The Mythical Man-Month made this observation developing a new piece of software – inevitably, many of the problems that will need to be solved won’t be known until you try to solve them. The first try will incorporate many feelings of should-have and would-have that will be fixed on the second try.

Carter made a bench!

This is much like a journeyman craftsman building his or her first bench, or planting their first garden. The first try is a learning experience. There is no way around this, nor should there be – learning is often best by doing. The valuable asset is the experience of the builder, not the product.

But we don’t live in the Middle Ages, the age of guilds. We live in the post-Industrial Age. Factory owners don’t consider hoarding all the toys or cars or electronics they produce as an asset. Henry Ford’s genius was to redesign not just the golden eggs, but the machine that lays them.

As programmers, we are not working on a code base. We are working on a machine that produces code. The machine is made up of us, our experiences, the tools we build to make code (which can be made out of code themselves!). This is where results come from, and we should spend our time tuning this machine by producing more, not protecting what we have.

Does this mean that we should throw out old code? By no means! Old code is one of the most efficient resources we have for producing new code. But every process of manufacture in the past has been made into a more automatic and refined process. How could we consider ourselves any different?

Does this mean that we should code like crap? By no means! As was once said, “If you write the first one to throw out, you will end up throwing out the second one as well.” The point is, write good code, but be willing to write new code – the point is to make not good code, but a good code factory.

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