Shadows In Time: Developers After The Fact

By: Paul McDowell
Published: 4/17/2019 2:35:26 AM

Shadows in time: Developers after the fact


As a developer and hobbyist, I spend a lot of time talking about craftsmanship to one degree or another. In software we use it to describe both quality and processes, but we don't talk much about the impression we leave behind. It’s even a common jest that anything good is new and anything awful was left by the previous team. We accept that not only will our code age quickly, but likely be completely replaced long before it loses usefulness in favor of the next iteration. It becomes difficult to talk about durations longer than two years in part because, so few developers have long lived code worth discussing, and it has made me question what we're leaving behind.


Six years ago, one of my neighbors, a quiet and polite elderly man passed away. I wasn't particularly surprised, he had been having issues for a while and I would see him from time to time come home with the assistance of relatives, each time less ambulatory than the last. I learned of his passing from those same relatives in fact at the same time as I learned there would be an estate auction at his home. After discussing logistics (it would be a large sale in a very small street) I told them some about what I do, and they were kind enough to give me a tour of the home ahead of time.


At the end of the tour we entered what I thought was an abandoned garage. Instead I discovered a treasure trove of tools and equipment the likes of which I had never seen. Cutting torches, drill bits, taps, saws, and countless specialized tools hung from every wall and surface capable of supporting them. Every inch of the roughly 700sqft shop was carefully laid out to take raw metals in one end and push a finished product out the other. At the end of the shop with the most space available sat an old metal lathe, likely the top of the line at one point (honestly it may still be to this day) with an array of bits and attachments.  I was left feeling that touring this man's shop was really an honor, even knowing it would all soon travel to distant places.


Thinking about that moment over the years, I'm left feeling somewhat empty about my own trade. Certainly, as people we are more than the sum of our work, but as craftsman and developers what we leave behind in our shadow are the tools and creations of our labors. A man I've only met a couple of times has had a strong impact on me in both my personal and professional life, in part because I could see not just samples of his work, but the tools of his trade and the care he paid them. What do we as developers leave behind? Will people peruse our creations and feel honored, or will they rm -rf and be done? What tools do we care for, and will those that come after us seek them like their own grail? When I'm a shadow, what will be the lathe I leave behind?