In my many years in the software development industry, not to mention my many years in the software development education industry, I’ve been continually amazed by the tacit acceptance of the fact that many (most?) software developers are terrible writers. The university programmes don’t require anything beyond a simple English 101 class, and companies simply accept the fact that many of their people are, at best, barely literate. It’s a sad, stupid state of affairs, and I figured I’d take a few minutes to explain why I think it’s a detriment to the industry as a whole.

You see, in my mind, at it’s core, software development is fundamentally an act of communication. Of course, there’s the obvious fact that a developer must take their ideas and communicate them to the computer, which then executes them. But as developers, we must also communicate ideas to our users, through the user interfaces we build. And we must also communicate ideas to other developers through the code itself, not to mention the comments therein (after all, as any developer will tell you, development is as much, if not more, about reading code as it is writing it).

Similarly, writing is, obviously, an act of communication. When a writer writes, their goal is to take amorphous, ephemeral ideas, and turn them into concrete, written words which preserve the essence of those ideas and communicates them to the reader.

Now, in order to communicate complex ideas through written word, one must master some very basic skills:

  1. The ability to clearly conceptualize an idea and transform it into a more concrete expression.
  2. The ability to break down that idea into simple parts that can be easily explained.
  3. The ability to explain those parts in a way the reader can understand.
  4. The ability to take those parts, now explained, and to synthesize them into a coherent whole.

Does this sound anything at all like software development?

Furthermore, a capable writer pays attention to detail. He is as much concerned with the way an idea is expressed as he is with communicating the idea itself. For example, I could’ve written this entire post in short, terse sentences with no paragraph breaks. But I care as much about how these ideas are communicated as I do about the actual act of communicating them.

Similarly, in the area of software development, while two developers may derive the same solution to a problem, one may choose to write terse, difficult to read code that’s poorly formatted and organized, and consequently difficult to maintain, while the other may produce code that’s precisely the opposite.

By now you can probably guess what I’m getting at. I would surmise that you would find a correlation between developers who are skilled writers, and those who produce code that’s clean, readable, and maintainable. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. I’m sure there are many many developers out there that are great writers yet terrible developers, and vice versa. But I would contend that, statistically, you would find a correlation between writing skill and development skill, and at their core, these two disciplines are really very similar.

So why is it that we accept such poor writing skill in the development community? Quite honestly, I’m not sure. I think part of the issue is the fundamental belief that software development is an engineering skill, a process that’s dominated purely by technological problems that must be solved with technological solutions. I suspect it’s also driven by a false dichotomy, the idea that writers are “thinkers” and technologists are “doers”. But I truly believe it needs to change. Meanwhile, the next time I interview someone, I may be tempted to ask them to write a short essay on a topic of my choice…