This is all about how amazing software development really is.
Taking "X" to be a geeky subject: The belief that "X" is truly a thing of beauty but scorned, unloved and misunderstood by the masses is by no means a modern concept. But it lingers on all the same. I suppose it's no coincidence that the culmination of many geeky subjects into a sort of geeky mega-subject (software development) might attract a bit more than it's fair share of abuse. People at least have some respect for mathematicians and physicists, even if they choose to distance themselves. Tell people you develop software for a living and they promptly fall asleep, or complain that their computer never works. Unless of course, you develop games for a living at which point you become every kid's best friend. (It's a strategy I highly recommend.)
Here's a few thoughts and some of my favourite quotes on the topic of beauty and software.
First up is Donald Knuth's, "Art of computer programming". For non-coders out there, this book is the equivalent of Steven Hawkings, "Brief History of Time", to most people: Everyone has heard of it. Many people own a copy. Some people have even attempted to read it but few have actually completed it and even less understood it. It's the kind of "compulsory reading" that most programmers skip but know they probably shouldn't have.
Knuth justifies his use of the word "Art" in the title:
Computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces objects of beauty. A programmer who subconsciously views himself as an artist will enjoy what he does and will do it better.
You can almost hear a revolt starting.
Is coding Art? Well, I think there's one thing missing in Knuth's description that would make his assertion particularly convincing - Art can tell you something about humanity. Can your code do that? Well, I'm not sure. But, in the defense of code and the study of patterns in general, there are features and patterns of the world that are better reflected through them than Art. I think some of these patterns are surprisingly deep and beautiful - eigenvectors are the first to spring to mind. Certainly beautiful enough that I'd hang them on my wall if I could capture them in a picture.
You can express yourself through Art. Can you express yourself through code? Certainly. The most obvious example of this is the rapidly growing cross-over world of programming visual artists. Generative art is a topic all of it's own, so I'll just recommend anyone interested to check out Processing and follow links from there. I'm a fan of Robert Hodgin, especially this.
Is it possible to be defined by your creations, as many artists become defined by their output? This seems to be true of Justin Frankel, creator of several popular and sometimes controversial projects. There's a popular quote to go with his resignation from AOL to go with this, but please be aware I'm including it with some reservations as it's second hand and comes from a somewhat opinionated article. Just be aware it might be porky pies:
For me, coding is a form of self-expression. The company controls the most effective means of self-expression I have. This is unacceptable to me as an individual, therefore I must leave.
(I should probably also note his most recent project, REAPER, is absolutely fantastic and all you Cubase users should jump ship immediately.)
I might be nitpicking, but I suspect the most common understanding of 'beauty' in reference to code is actually something closer to 'elegance' rather than beauty as such. Code elegance is arguably the reading-between-the-lines topic of many software engineering mailing lists.
Some noteworth texts from the small to the large include a decent blog post, On Beauty in Code; a presentation on how to go about writing beautiful code (in PHP of all things!); and of course there's a rather interesting looking book, Beautiful Code. I haven't read this yet, but intend to shortly. The highlight for me is an interesting review of a review of the book entitled, Code isn't beautiful:
Ideas are beautiful. Algorithms are beautiful. Well executed ideas and algorithms are even more beautiful. But the code itself is not beautiful. The beauty of code lies in the architecture, the ideas, the grander algorithms and strategies that code represents.
I think that's pretty much on the button.
If your code was a building - an analogy that happens to be a good fit a lot of the time - you could marvel at it's architecture. You could be impressed by the construction, or the balance of functionality and aesthetics. And like appreciation of architecture, a lot can be in the eye of the beholder!
Coventry's Belgade Theatre.
Is it a "bold and dynamic" statement, developed through a "sculpural process" where "the spaces that it embraces, and that it implies around itself, are as important as the form itself"? Or, an unimaginative concrete cube ungracefully slapped into the middle of an already concrete-heavy town, representing little but the staggering lack of inspiration present in its creators? You decide! Comparisons with your most loved or love-to-hate software engineering projects as comments please.
Ignoring the code and algorithms for a moment, it's undeniable that the output of code can be beautiful - after all it's a major goal of computer graphics research. And not all of it involves artists in the traditional sense. Data visualisation has become a big topic in recent years. I find the growth of this area quite fascinating as it produces attractive, often intriguing images but apparently skipping over the role of an artist in a traditional sense and deriving input purely from real world data. It's arguably an expression of humanity - although not quite in the same sense I originally had in mind!
On a personal note, I still remember the first implementation of our radiosity algorithm emerge. The whole thing happened quite quickly and we lost several days to just playing with it: tweaking the scene, changing the lights, adding some post processing. It was something none of us had seen before, and it took us quite by surprise. I'd had that feel-good effect from previous projects, but there's something about actually being able to see the result and play with it that makes it all the more tangible.
I clearly remember my tutor at university complaining that too many people focus on process over product. In fact, he was my music tutor complaining about composers, but the point applies very well to software engineering. But that's not to say there isn't beauty - even joy - to gain from the creation of code. This leads me to my last, but perhaps favourite quote of all time. Here's Alexander Stepanov (author of the C++ standard library) and Mat Marcus in some lecture notes:
Programming has become a disreputable, lowly activity. More and more programmers try to become managers, product managers, architects, evangelists – anything but writing code. It is possible now to find a professor of Computer Science who never wrote a program. And it is almost impossible to find a professor who actually writes code that is used by anyone: the task of writing code is delegated to graduate students. Programming is wonderful. The best job in the world is to be a computer programmer. Code can be as beautiful as the periodic table or Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier.
It's one of my favourite quotes because it's so passionate: I too love programming! I love patterns and algorithms! The world is fantastic!
But - and it's a big but - that quote simulateously shines light on the big elephant in the room: Software development is programming but with people. That 'people' part is vitally important, and is occasionally neglected by programmers of code, beautiful or otherwise. It mustn't be. Coding is empowering, but the power still lies with people. I suspect software development does have a thing or two to tell us about humanity.
And that's why software development really is amazing. Even if it's simultaneous one of the most mind-numbingly difficult, painful and exhilarating things I can think of.