Witnessing Craftsmanship

GreenPainter

Recently we hired a painter to do the exterior of our house. At the time I thought we had simply purchased the services of a painter, however I soon discovered that we were getting something more. We were getting a tutorial in the fundamentals of craftsmanship.

It all started with the first day of work. We had contractors working on an addition to the house. They would typically show up around 8 in the morning each day and work until 5. Our painter however, was different. He would show up at 7 AM and work until 7 PM in the evening. This guy had the work ethic of a Clydesdale. Now I’m sure he was pushing himself hard, but it wasn’t like he was griping about the long hours. In fact, he seemed completely focused on one thing – making sure he was doing the best possible job. He wasn’t asking “Am I done yet?” rather he seemed focused on “What more can I do to make this job perfect?” It was obvious that he took a lot of pride and satisfaction in his work. Unlike a lot of the other contractors, he did all of his work alone.

patches

He started with prepping the house for the paint. I figured he would give the siding a quick power wash and then get right to it. Maybe take a day. Instead, he power washed the siding, then he got out the filler and proceeded to methodically fill every crack, nail hole and imperfection he could find. Then he took another day to meticulously sand all of the patches and anywhere there was a hint of an imperfection. Three days and he never even opened a paint can.

Now, I don’t know a damn thing about painting houses. Maybe everybody does it this way, but I have to say I was mighty impressed. Every day he would show up before everyone else, and every day he would work longer than anyone else. He was focused to the point of myopia. And he was a pretty nice guy. Weird.

When he finally got around to putting the paint on the house, the results were spectacular! Lines and borders were crisp. Everything was carefully taped off in advance. Ground cover laid to catch spills. Again, the preparation was immaculate.

Now it’s not that he didn’t make mistakes. He did make mistakes. When he made them, he called them out and knew exactly what to do to fix them. He didn’t try to hide them or avoid them in any way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now it was pretty obvious watching this guy, that he was achieving what we might call a state of flow. He was focused, challenged, pushing himself and in the moment. I remember watching him and feeling envious. To be that confident in your work, and able to get into that zone is absolutely amazing.

It’s certainly not where I live. I’m in meetings all day long. When I’m not in meetings I get interrupted every 5 minutes by people who were waiting to get my time – because I was in all those #$%^& meetings. My experience is not one of flow. I never get the time to focus. I seem to be progressively working myself into a raging case of attention deficit disorder.

Watching this guy I started to get an intuitive feeling for what that mysterious “Craftsmanship” thing might be all about. I wasn’t about to micro manage this guy. I guess I could have stepped in and told him to spend less time on prep. You know, “We don’t need any of that puttying and sanding! Just powerwash it and start laying down some paint! That’s what I’m paying you for! Not for farting around with putty and taping every last corner exactly right.”

To go that route would have been crazy.

No, what I was seeing here was some sort of relationship between craftsmanship and flow. This was a guy who was uncompromising in his drive to excellence. He painted our front door, then let us know that he’d probably over done it. It was Friday afternoon. Sure enough, as the paint dried there were drips and runs. So what does he do? He shows up at 7 AM on Saturday morning and proceeds to sand down the entire door by hand. Then he repaints it all again – perfect this time. We didn’t ask him to. He told us that’s what he needed to do. I was happy to pay for that kind of quality. It was amazing.

So the $64,000 question is, what would that kind of craftsmanship look like in software? Pick a role, any role: Developer or QA? Scrum Master, Product Owner, Project Manager, or just plain old Manager.

I used to work with a developer who delivered absolutely amazing work. You would sit down and discuss the requirements with him and then he would look at you and say, “Give me a couple of days to do some research and then I’ll start writing some code.” And that’s exactly what he would do – he’d spend all day for 3-4 days just reading books and researching the topic and examples of the code he had been asked to write. Think of it as the prep work – understanding the problem, looking for issues, asking questions, researching other approaches. It’s really not a whole lot different from prepping the house for paint. Power washing the walls, sanding, patching, taping and generally preparing for the work to come. Setting things up to go smoothly.

And once this developer finished his prep work he would write the code in record time, complete with unit tests! It was tight, concise, and easy to read. You could tell that he had taken the time to understand the problem deeply. Objects and methods were clearly named and made sense. The whole thing was elegant. And he delivered! Nobody messed with him. You don’t look at a guy like that and say, “Geez, I really need this fast, can you just hammer it out without doing any research.”

Well, to my undying shame, I actually did that. And I got the answer that I deserved,

“No.”

Asking him to It was like asking him to not wash his hands after going to the bathroom. He had found a way of working that delivered quality that excited his customers. He wasn’t about to compromise that just because some project manager wanted it faster.

I worked with a scrum master who would spend hours preparing for a sprint planning meeting. His mantra was that you should spend twice as much time preparing for a meeting as you do actually attending the meeting. His meetings were meticulous. Often times he had done enough work with the stakeholders in advance that the entire meeting was really just a chance to recap the decisions already made and seek final sign off. To him, a successful meeting was the culmination of many hours of prep work. I think of this as the craft of facilitating a good meeting. Ask him to slap it together faster and he would look at you and ask, “Why bother wasting time on a meeting at all if you aren’t willing to do the legwork?”

Good question.

I believe that at some level there is an element of craftsmanship that can be found in most work whether it is manual labor or knowledge work. I think we all would benefit from finding that craft in our day to day. It offers us the opportunity to find flow in our work, to take pride in what we do, and ultimately to delight our customers/stakeholders.

3 Responses to Witnessing Craftsmanship

  1. Thanks Tom for publishing this.
    I like the story, it’s a nice example of someone taking responsibility.
    I dislike that you give the impression he has to work 12 hour days for that.
    I know a lot of hard working, responsible people working only 8 hours. They have the same result. And yes when they will screw up, they will work extra if needed to fix it.
    yet, I don’t think the default of working 12 hours needs to be part of responsibility. And yes I do see that most people who are taking responsibility, have a habit of working insane hours.

    • Tom Perry says:

      Yves,

      Yeah, it makes me a little uncomfortable too. Working 12 hours in a state of flow (is that even possible?) is that very different from overwork? Frankly I wish I had found a way to get to know this guy better.

      Thanks,
      Tom

  2. john says:

    GEEEEEK… This is a great article.
    software industry has out of box thinking, it says fetch the personal time and focus on
    work@office.
    Everyone has a final outcome@ratings :) :) :)

    Story looks awesome but for the above described person, work is challenging and out come is proportional, but in software everything
    is worst and undetermined

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