Friday, March 1, 2024
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On Craft

  • Cat Hicks

    • 15 hours ago
    • 5 min read

My grandpa — my Missouri grandpa, who played slide guitar to me when I got homesick on the rare occasions I stayed with them — grew up on a farm without electricity. He went past eighth grade, which really mattered to him. He loved that I played harp, which he always called “elegant,” in an extremely Missouri accent, an accent that hugged every syllable. Since living in California, I never hear this way of speaking. Recently I heard his accent on TV and cried unexpectedly, ugly crying, startling my wife.

Grandpa loved craft. He didn’t put it that way but other people did. My dad said grandpa was a craftsman. I didn’t understand what this meant until one day when we were visiting. We sat down at a restaurant table and it wobbled. We ignored it. But Grandpa dropped as quickly and efficiently as a seal, vanishing underneath the table to fix the cheap, badly-screwed leg with a coin for a screwdriver.

He fixed things often and silently. Grandpa just cared about things working. He had an instinct for not just broken things but soon to be broken things. He would point out risky work, bad decision making in the form of shoddy materials or shifting angles. He was offended by the trace measures left in the world that signified short-term planning. So I learned that this too had something to do with craft. He had a visual vocabulary that amazed me. I think about how he could see these details. He saw choices and constraints and tensions and frictions where I just saw chairs. He saw effort where most people just saw end products.

This extended past the built world. Grandpa could also recognize trees at remarkable distances: beech, birch, maple, oak. He could tell if they were growing healthy. He could tell if they were growing sick. He told me: “it’s when they just don’t look happy.”

Because it was such a stark contrast to his immediate understanding of nature and the charm of woodwork and craft, I was also amazed to learn when I was older that my grandpa had come home from war to land in work that was brutal, defined almost entirely by its output. He worked in a bag factory, eventually managing the people on the floor. It was full of assembly lines and equipment that were collectively quite dangerous. The factory employed people whom other people often treated as dangerous. They were hard jobs and it was very hard work. My grandpa was a very musical person, with an ear for rhythm, which is probably why he loved that I played harp. In the factory, he told me he used to frequently stop people from trying to work faster or differently because it would cause a ruckus, a ripple effect, a mess, he said. It took me a long time to read between the lines and realize that in my grandpa’s world back then, a disruption to the assembly line rhythms got somebody killed. So he kept everyone on cadence, rather than simply pursuing speed.

Grandpa told a story about walking home late and realizing he was being followed by one of the men who worked under him in the factory. At the time, many other people with jobs like his carried weapons. My grandpa made a point not to. The possibility of violence hung behind all of them; it was not unheard of at factories like this to have a fight that could turn into a riot, or an accident that could turn deadly. But my grandpa saw the soon to be broken behind that too, and he refused it. I remember how much he liked to trust people, fix things around people. And so he just had his hands in empty pockets walking home that night. He thought: maybe this is it. He walked faster. The man behind him walked faster. And then the man caught up with my grandpa and said: ”I thought I’d walk you home. It can be dangerous around here.”

It is easy to remember my grandpa mostly for where I saw him, a porch in Missouri playing guitar, fixing things around the house, long walks in the forest. It is more difficult to think about the habits of mind that must have trained him to see many types of brokenness. He lived 196 consecutive days in combat in WWII. I never saw him ever choose to weaponize something that he could see or do that other people couldn’t. I think about him when I think about craft.

I think the way some people talk about craft in software engineering is often weaponized. Some developers, some software teams, some software leaders, even ones I really learn from and think are closer to caring about the things that I also care about — their demand to be revered for craft quickly reveals that they think it isn’t for everyone to get to be a craftsperson. I have read a lot of long spiels about craft that frequently end in something like, software work isn’t like other work, and we shouldn’t be judged the same way. We are entirely unique. We are the special ones. I find this both saddening and unconvincing. I think that all labor is skilled labor. I think about the factories and the fields and the ways that demands for speed instead of cadence can hurt people. I think we should seek to understand and value our skills and see effort. But I don’t think we are going to fix anything about how software work is valued by refusing to let it belong to the rest of the world.

Early in my career I contracted at a tech place where there was a makerspace that software engineers got automatic access to, but my badge didn’t work on the door. I remember standing at the window looking at the recreational machines of the makerspace and thinking about my own life, my grandpa handing me down our blue collar craft. I’ve fixed electric fences and I learned to drive on a riding lawn mower and I used to sew in a costume shop to be able to buy dinner, walking away from machines with blood on my fingers, because sewing may be much more gendered than a factory but it is really, really hard manual labor. I can identify so many trees. And they didn’t badge people who weren’t software engineers into the makerspace and someone told me well the engineers are the builders aren’t they. I wanted to say: do you know what it is like to make your whole life? How dare you.

There is this thing I guess for me here, craft as communication and collaboration and creation, versus craft as weapon. Craft as fixing a table for everyone who will sit at it later versus craft as judging whose work gets to be seen as authentic and skilled.

Sometimes when I’m wrangling with trying to put words to something about teams and workplaces and making them better, I wish that I could talk to my grandpa about it. I wish I could hear that accent that I’ve never heard at a tech company. I can’t remember ever seeing him use a computer, I’m not sure he really knew what software was. I don’t think that would have mattered. He treated people that other people called dangerous with dignity and because of that he kept everyone safer together–so he would get it. He is not here to see me have this career but he loved that I went into psychology. He thought it was elegant work. I think about my grandpa going from his beautiful outdoor childhood in nature to war to a dangerous factory. But he made a craft out of it anyway. He loved the trees, but he taught himself to listen to the machines. And he extended the possibility of better to the people, because that was what the world needed and that was the ecosystem he had around him to build something in. So that is what I think of as craft.

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