I like splitting wood. It’s a simple physical activity and I’m good at it. I can tell you exactly why I like splitting wood; it is very similar to why I like doing some other things, like building software for example. There has been a lot of discussion in software development about this thing some people call craftsmanship
When you split a log (assuming you have a decent tool) things are quite simple. There are a lot of physics involved, like the direction of the grains, the cohesion between them. The moisture is important too, the momentum of the axe, the angle… But when I swing I don’t think of those. I just look at the log, know where I want to hit it and then it happens the way I saw it in my head. It doesn’t always go right, but it does a lot of times. When it goes right I know it before I register it. Right at the moment the axe has its maximum momentum and the direction is set I know there is nothing to correct and the scenario can play out the way it should. And then there is the moment when the axe hits the wood and sinks in effortlessly. There is the well articulated “chk” immediately followed by a “pang” as the tension makes the log snap apart. If you hit as hard as you can you will send two parts flying away, but that doesn’t give me most satisfaction. I like it when I hit just hard enough and two parts end up standing next to each other. I can immediately go on and take another swing without stooping over and straightening the logs. That feeling is the most addictive thing I’ve found in life. I can continue splitting wood far beyond comfort, just to get another fix of that feeling. I am not alone in this I believe.
A long time friend of mine is a baseball player. He told me a similar story about hitting a ball just right. The pitcher throws, not too slow, but you catch the ball with your eye. You swing at it and as the bat cuts through the air, you know it’s going to connect right. Then the ball hits the bat so that you hardly feel it. You just year the “ping” and you know it’s a home run. I’m not a baseball player, but apparently there is nothing like that feeling. I believe it is the same feeling that I get from splitting logs.
A related thing has been described before by Csíkszentmihályi Mihály. It is referred to as “Flow” or “The Zone”. If you haven’t seen Csíkszentmihályi’s work you definitely should have a look (feel free to copy paste now to avoid spelling errors). I believe this immediate feeling of joy as you do something right lies at the basis of flow.
With some effort I can get this feeling when developing software too. It is even possible to share this feeling with a whole team of developers. When that happens I love my job so much I’d do it for free until I starve. With some more effort it is possible to do this on a project that actually delivers business value to a customer. This means I can do this great thing without starving if I play my cards right. I need a way to get the people that stop me from doing this to get a clue and let me do my thing. You probably know the types I’m talking about: it’s the manager up high that makes me work on a virtual desktop that runs vista; it’s the architect that forces me to use a five year old version of a bad framework and makes me deploy to Weblogic 5; it’s the customer that waves three years old specs at me when I ask him a question about how he wants you to implement a feature. It is also the colleague that refuses to talk to me about my real problem if it is not related to cool new obscure technology X that somebody blogged about this morning.
If I can get these people to grow up by talking to them about Agile, XP, or Craftsmanship, or Lean, or Oompa Loompa’s; I will do it. I’m a junky remember? I want to get my daily flow fix! When Robert Martin said we were tired of writing crap, it didn’t ring true with me. I’m not tired of it at all. I’m prepared to write a lot of crap to get it right just once. If we do have a nice bit of marketing on the word craftsmanship I’m fine to surf that wave for now. Next year we’ll call it Real Engineering, the year after Real Development. Why the hell not. As long as some of us get what it is about and they are in my team I’m totally cool with it.