3 September 2014

Thoughts on Mastery

RakeDuring summer time I was on vacation in Tyrol which is an excellent place for hiking. A local magazine told a story about Josef Frauenschuh and his business of hand-crafted rakes. Josef is a true master craftsman: He is of old age, many years past official retirement. He creates large wooden rakes of highest quality using different kinds of wood for each part of the rake. His rakes are balanced and lightweight. He uses the best tools he can get, all of them are self-made and after 45 years he is still improving his tools and process. Obviously he does not accept any compromise. Once, when he needed more space to create the shafts, he simply made a hole in the wall of his workshop.

I liked the story a lot. It made me think about our craft and the concept of mastery.

I believe that one major aspect of mastery is age. It is not necessary by itself but rather is a side effect of the time needed to master a subject. Masters are aged because they have been practising their craft for 30 years or more and still try to improve. Following this definition it is obvious that there can not be many masters of software development, because our industry is still young. Only a few like Uncle Bob are working in the industry long enough, whereas most of us have less than ten years of experience. The so-called senior developers with five years of experience are just young journeyman, if at all.

Rastrello Di LegnoJosef is working hard. Although he could retire any time, he is working five days a week because the demand for his rakes is high. He is a master and his rakes are masterpieces, but does he get rich? I do not think so. Following the story I assume he has to put considerable effort into each rake, and sometimes the wood splinters and he has to start over. Being curious I compared the prices and his rakes sell for around 70 Euro, whereas eBay has some for ten to 20 Euro, although no wooden ones. So yes, the masterpiece is up to five times more expensive than a regular one.

Still it seems that Josef is not earning five times more per hour than other workers. Could it be that master craftsmen are relatively underpaid because they put in extra work to create magnificent things? Maybe his rakes are expensive to compensate for the small number he is able to produce. That does not compare well to our industry. We (developers) are greedy. We expect a good salary matching our experience and competence. The more experience we have, the more money we want, which seems only fair. The never ending demand for IT professionals spoils us and salaries rise during the first years of junior developers' careers. At least they rise up to a certain point, which might be 15 years of experience, when we become "too senior" for most employers. But this is another story.

I do not know Josef Frauenschuh but I believe him to be a true master craftsman. Instead of bragging about his achievements, he is modest and admits that sometimes he even has to listen to outsiders to improve his rakes. He does not need titles of seniority, nor is he proclaiming himself to be a master. I guess he considers himself still a simple carpenter. He is a great example. Some of his modesty would suite us software people well, and I will start with myself.

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