by Esther Schindler

Taking The Time for Software Design

Dec 16, 20083 mins

Cranking out ho-hum code might not require a lot of thinking. But when you need to design elegant software, you need time and space for creative cogitation. Do your coworkers and bosses recognize it… and give you the freedom to do so?

My coworker Jan had his feet up on his desk. He had leaned his chair all the way back, and was staring out the window, oblivious to the two of us walking past his office. “Oh, good!” exclaimed our boss, Ivan. “Jan is thinking. If he’s still in the same position by the end of today, I know I’ll see some great code tomorrow.”

That incident happened 25 years ago, when I worked as a software developer at a consulting company. Jan was staring out the window at the end of the day; a few days later he had designed a brilliant, efficient and elegant software solution that illuminated why our tiny company was so well-regarded in its corner of the industry. And I’m still friends with our then-boss Ivan to this day, because we continue to share the same priority: get smart people to understand and buy into the project goal, and then leave them alone to accomplish it.

Some companies treat their developers very well, by which I mean “They leave them alone to design software the right way.” Anyone who is called upon to be creative (and jeez, aren’t we all?) needs the freedom to stare out the window, and to stay quiet enough to hear the voice of her muse. With businesses being what they are—from bullpens to “Be Productive Today!” sweatshops—I worry that it happens all too rarely.

I don’t mean to say that we all do our best design work by window-gazing. Some of us design best in other environments, whether that’s taking a shower or disappearing into a favorite band’s music. But in the standard office environment—where you get an office with a door that closes only if you’re lucky, you’re scheduled to attend three irritating meetings today and it’s unacceptable to turn off instant msssaging—how often can you really indulge in a good creative wallow? You can’t get away with looking like you “aren’t doing anything”—although you are doing something: you’re constructing three layers of indirection in your head and generating an idea that’ll let you accomplish in 20 lines of code what other developers might take thousands of lines to accomplish.

I wonder how well the people around you recognize it when you are in DesignMode. Other developers might understand the signs, but do users? Bosses? I fear that software innovation (not to mention software beauty, another topic that’s top-of-mind for me these days) is lost because developers have to put effort into “looking busy” or at least covering up their most efficient (for them) creative process with something that appears to be work-related (such as doing lots of Google searches, or anything which requires a lot of keyboard stabbing in front of a web browser).

My guess is: that’s why employees are insisting on the ability to work at home more often. If you can’t get work done at the office, you can curl up on your couch with a laptop, an inspirational cat and your favorite album turned up on your stereo. Or you stare into space. Or you quilt. But mainly, you grab the opportunity to work in whichever way helps you get inspired… and create the best damned software possible.

What’s your trick for finding the time and space for software design?