The Programming Construction Metaphor

posted Apr 11, 2007
in Programming

I've gone on before about how distrustful of metaphors I am, and it seems like every year I'm getting more distrustful of them. Either deal with the thing as it is, or just give up understanding it. Metaphors lead to the beginning of understanding, but no farther.

Programmers aren't immune to the metaphor sickness, and if there's one metaphor you can expect to see trotted out at the earliest available opportunity, it's the "programming as construction" metaphor. This metaphor has been skillfully deconstructed many many times before, but I'm going to deconstruct it from the opposite angle... what if construction was like software engineering?

If we built buildings the way we wrote software, we wouldn't even call a contractor; we'd go down to our local hardware store and pick up a copy of Microsoft House. We'd poke the parameters into Microsoft House, push a button, and our house would be templated within seconds. Rather than mucking about with blueprints and plans, we'd walk through an actual physical house, and customize it in real time, because there's nothing they're going to ask for that Microsoft hasn't already heard and incorporated into Microsoft House. Building a house has been done.

Microsoft House costs $59.95 and is certified to comply with the building and housing code in every jurisdiction in North America. You could also use GnuHouse, which is Free and has a few more features but a bit less style, since nobody could afford to hire the best designers.

Anyone who has even built a shed in the back yard knows this is not how construction works. Construction is nothing like software engineering. The difficulty of doing what has been done before is nearly zero, and as a result we don't spend much time on that. If you have to draw an analogy with something, "engineering" in software is more like "research" in any other field; you can't know exactly how long something will take, even if you have a good idea about where you're going and how to get there, because at any moment something new and surprising may jump out at you and change everything.... and I'm not even considering the possibility of "changing requirements" when I say that.


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