Saturday, July 28, 2012

Finding your voice

In the past six weeks I've attended a week long Writer's Conference at Wesleyan University, a week long Native American and World Flute Conference at University of Wisconsin and changed jobs (going from a 40,000 person company to a 6 person startup).

I like to look for common threads and the thread here is finding one's voice.

Voice is sometimes thought of as the same thing as "style" which may help explain the idea of programmers having a voice but I think it goes far beyond that.

At the writer's conference we did close readings ("inspections") of various works, looking for themes and patterns and voice.  Voice here meant a way of saying things that was engaging, illuminating, understandable and among other things predictable.  We talked about various contracts a writer can implicitly establish with a reader such as mentioning a shotgun in a foreshadowing paragraph implies a later use of that gun in some future scene.

At the flute festival we attended Master Classes on topics such as use of various scales (major, minor, mixolydian), how to add embellishments or ornaments to ones playing and how to tell a story by use of tempo and volume and such.  While the standard orchestral flute has about 20 keys the various native flutes have six or four keys...and the didgeridoo has no keys.  This can be seen as limited but a smaller set of notes to choose from just means one has to use other ways to produce a full and interesting story. Thus voice.

In my new job I am the second programmer on a medium sized system...meaning that the system was entirely written by a single person.  It definitely has style because the person who wrote it has strong feelings about the myriad of design choices he's made along the way.  He's also free about the choices that were made without a strong sense of one choice being clearly better than another.

His voice is of course different from mine.  We have very different backgrounds and life experiences, but the point is that I can see his voice in the code and I quite like it.  I'm sure that over time our two voices will influence each other, but I suspect that they will remain distinct.

In the past I've been a strong advocate of static analysis tools such as CheckStyle. I don't think I'll be lobbying so much for that tool here.  I'm beginning to think that such tools are most applicable for shops where the engineers have not yet found their voice.

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