Art can be Agile, but can Programming be Art?

Johnny Depp visits Ralph Steadman in the film For no Good Reason and I learn the artist practices agile whilst changing the world!


Ralph Steadman, the angry cartoonist with the bitingly savage ink pen and distinctive style spent the 1970s, 80s and 90s scrawling and blotching words people thought but didn’t dare to speak. “I wanted my drawings to change the world” states Steadman in the film’s opening sequence. By the time he says it again at the close, I have glimpsed into a vast chasm that separates his world of art and mine. His is driven by a need to change the things that make him angry; mine by a simple desire to improve the way businesses do things.

Being Agile makes it OK to start over – whether you are drawing or programming

Cartoonists and developers both know when a project is going well and when it just isn’t working. Given the choice, both would chalk it up to experience, file it in a dusty folder and simply start again.

Programming as an art form?

There are times I’ve been so pleased with the elegant simplicity of a process improvement, a design or piece of code, that I’ve thought it artistic. Of course, I recognise its significance exists only inside my mind, and that’s because I’m the only one who knows all the facets and nuances, all the complexity and implications of the problem that the solution solves. Others, in my same team, will use it and maybe remark that “it works well” or is “pretty neat”, if indeed, it is a good solution – they will certainly say if it isn’t!

Steadman is a prolific artist and he suggests to Johnny Depp that perhaps he’s done “too much”. None of his art is lightweight. It is confrontational, thought-provoking and always technically fascinating, making the film rather intense despite its sparse style. Depp (as himself) says very little, companionably smoking roll-ups and simply listening to a fellow artist discuss his job. We watch him work, developing a spattered ink shape into a terrible, unlovable animal form that he dislikes, but its point is to demonstrate a process, not to change the world. This is rather like writing code to show someone a technique in a training course. There’s no end user audience, just another artist.

Know your audience

As a developer, I always consider three audiences: the users, sponsors (owner) and other developers. If I write elegant code users will appreciate how well it works right away (because I ask them). Developers will use it when they maintain the code over the next months; and the sponsors will eventually see the benefits translate into improved profits, performance, satisfaction or savings.

Years later, when integrating another application, sponsors often realise that good design has given them a considerable advantage in the market and will provide significant savings when doing further development. This proved immensely valuable at Transport for London where successive projects were connected in a Service-Oriented Architecture, re-factoring ROI multiple times.

Imagine being a Bentley motor (it’s easy if you try). You know that car is engineered and constructed to the highest standards without having to strip it down to see for yourself. And would it mean anything if you saw the seals and bolts anyway? No, but a visit to the Bentley factory in Crewe would reveal quite a lot about the quality of the vehicles, and the development process, as would a visit to your software programming shop. I highly recommend both by the way, especially if you are having bespoke work done.

I used to think my best programming was artistic; turns-out I was wrong.

Ralph Steadman’s art exists to be seen and to deliver a message to those who see it, because that’s way he can change the world. My solutions only solve business problems, and make life easier for people, hopefully in the most elegant and agile manner.

This post first appeared as a blog on Storm Consulting.

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