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Blacksmithing a Train Engine

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Yet another analogy comparing software development to a hardware activity: in this case, train engines.

(Programs|engines) run, within the bounds of a (computer|track). The strength of the (computer|track) determines the rate at which they can run. The design and internal processes of the (program|engine) determines the rate at which they do run. Certain designs of (programs|engines) make it easier to handle various loads of (data|cars), since (data|cars) have different properties when placed under the stress of running.

If (data|cars) properly interface with the (file|rail) format, then the (program|engine) can handle them. If not, then the (program|engine) will fail to make any progress, or crash. The more subtle the difference between the format expected by the (program|engine) and that implemented by the (data|cars), the longer it will run before the difference creates a problem. Some problems might not be found at all, if no situation arises for which the difference has any noticeable effect. The (program|engine) handles a certain amount of (data|cars) before slowing to a crawl. Users can handle more (data|cars) in the same amount of time by running additional (programs|engines) in parallel, but improvement is limited by the time required to coordinate final and intermediate delivery.

Standard (file|rail) formats are better, because more (programs|engines) and (data|cars) are built to use them, their properties are better known, and users can even reuse them in different systems. However, vendors must differentiate themselves to drive business their way, so they often attempt to lock users into a particular format, in addition to (sometimes instead of) competing on the merits of their (program|engine).

In the early days of (programs|engines), each part was laboriously crafted and fit into place by hand, and often failed spectacularly from the additional pressures of running. Each part had to be crafted with a knowledge of all the stresses under which it would run, from materials suitable for the basic processes which powered the (program|engine). Nonetheless, its appearance made a more significant impact on users and bystanders, unless its performance differed drastically from others’.

The tools with which the craftsmen created (program|engine) parts were themselves created by the same process, so a craftsman’s product quality varied dramatically with his knowledge of toolmaking.

There were common parts, interfaces, and controls expected by users who had used similar (programs|engines). There was a great need to explain to users who had not: how they could expect the (program|engine) to behave with their (data|cars), and to make sure they were compatible with the (file|rail) format; how to control the (program|engine) at a basic level, and how to get a feel for its advanced capabilities; and how to get the (data|cars) to the (program|engine), and how to pass them off to others.

Smithing Tools to Smith Tools

Following text from Wikipedia on blacksmiths.

Over the centuries (blacksmiths|programmers) 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. Time and tradition have provided some fairly standard basic tools which vary only in detail around the world.

There are many other tools used by smiths, so many that even a brief description of the types is beyond the scope of this article and the task is complicated by a variety of names for the same type of tool. Further complicating the task is that making tools is inherently part of the smith’s craft and many custom tools are made by individual smiths to suit particular tasks and the smith’s inclination.

With that caveat one category of tools should be mentioned. A (jig|hack) is generally a custom built tool, usually made by the smith, to perform a particular operation for a particular task or project.

More on software blacksmithing, apprenticeship, and artistry: Craftsmanship as a Bridge.

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Written by catena

8 May 2007 at 1402

Posted in Software Design

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