Craft the Backs of Fences


Gawker recently published (Oct 28, 2011) an article, “The Most Anal CEO Ever,” that’s a little bit myth-making, a little bit making fun of a man’s eccentricities,  but can’t quite decide if Jobs was brilliantly sweating the small stuff or tyrannically wasting people’s time. The gist is that Jobs cared a lot about things that nobody else would ever care about. His success is left on the table as some kind of argument, and the writer gives in to the temptation of letting his behavior seem pretty crazy (like tearing off his oxygen mask because he hated the design) but doesn’t dig into why this might be a good thing sometimes. On the one hand we see him taking forever to redesign the interior of his private jet with brushed-metal buttons; on the other he sends an excited engineer back to the drawing board to enable rectangles with rounded corners in the Mac interface.

Right. If several years of struggling with CSS tricks and workarounds has taught us anything it’s that no one cares about rounded corners. This is actually a long-known episode in Apple lore and the engineer, Bill Atkinson, had solved the general problem of quickly drawing curves—which requires square roots that, in 1981, the processors couldn’t handle—by recognizing that the sum of sequences of odd numbers is always a perfect square. Thus he was able to turn make the calculations using only addition. An elegant piece of mathematics.

The second paragraph passes along a nice bit of “greatest generation” wisdom:

His attention to detail and craft apparently came from his father who told him it was important to craft the backs of fences and cabinets even though they would never be seen. Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson, “He loved doing things right. He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see.”

“Craft the backs of fences” is a great principle for anything—writing code, for example. In my job I see at a lot of code written by a lot of consultants and, trust, me I look at lot of fugly fence-backs. Real fence or metaphorical, it’s not true not nobody will see these parts. You know who will see it? The person that has to fix it later. Nothing lasts forever and even if your work never breaks, someday someone will want to modify it whether it is to add something to a piece of software or change the hardware on their cabinets. What do you want them to think of you when they tear it open?

When I look at unclear, poorly formatted, logically complicated source code, I feel like the author doesn’t understand or respect what they’re doing. If it’s unpleasant to read, it must have been unpleasant to write and they must have imagined they’d never have to see it again or they wouldn’t have sent it out the door looking like that. They certainly never thought they would have to answer the question, “why the hell did you do it like that?” Yes, people get rushed, including me, but this probably means they never ask themselves that question. When I have to write crappy code because of time constraints, I take the time to comment:

# I know. Sorry.

Another story has Jobs insisting that the circuit boards inside the Mac look good:

Nobody but Apple’s engineers would know what the printed circuit board inside the Mac would look like, but Jobs was critiquing it based on how it looked.

An engineer said to him, “The only thing that matters is how well it works. Nobody is going to see the PC board.” Jobs response according to Isaacson: “”I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.”

I know Jobs is right, because when I worked at the American Museum of Natural History we used a lot of Macs in exhibitions, from Quadras to Mac Pros, and I’ve been inside them all. Macs are a joy to open, and when you do open them you feel like someone was thinking of you and wanted to make your time a little more pleasant. The insides are pretty. You know what sucks to work on: Shuttles. We also used a lot of these and they’re great little compact computers that run well, but having to crack them open is hateful. To get anything out you have to remove a lot of unrelated parts, shove stiff cables out of the way, twist your hands into awkward positions and try to aoid sharp points and edges. I kept band-aids in my desk because of Shuttles. No Mac ever drew my blood. Even where compactness was important, say in an iMac or PowerBook, I was always impressed that Apple engineers had not only thought about their problem, putting it together, but also about mine, taking it apart

You should do something in life with the care of a craftsman. Whether it’s code, a computer, or a cabinet, if you want to think of yourself as a craftsman, always remember that part of your audience is other craftsmen and they will see the parts that no one else sees.

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