Shoulders of Giants

I’ve been thinking a lot about construction. Taking a very specific part of the process, building the staircase: you find a carpenter and they build the staircase to your measurements. Generally your contractor will find someone with decent experience that they think will do a good job for whatever price you’re willing to pay and then you get as staircase executed at whatever skill level happens to be available/at that price point.

Construction Physics had an interesting point the other day: mass production took off in America because the United States didn’t have skilled craftsmen the way Europe did. This is also borne out by my Instagram feed, currently: European tradesmen seem to be more artistic and skilled than the Americans in my feed (sorry fellow countrymen). My guess is that Europe’s aristocracy supported spending 5000 man-hours on a staircase in a way that the United States really couldn’t compete with. And now maybe a continuing culture that values these skills more? I don’t really know.

Regardless, I was thinking about how different this is than software engineering. There’s always someone’s first staircase they’ve ever built, which is not going to be as good as the thousandth (I hope!). However, if there’s a common component in software engineering, someone will have already built it and it will be the product of many engineers’ thousandth try at building user login, logging, whatever. Thus, a junior engineer can use these solid building blocks to create their own first-try-mess on top of. However, that mess will (hopefully!) have a solid foundation.

Open source and APIs are an incredible superpower software engineers have over the physical world. It’s like installing a staircase that was built by every master-craftsman over the last 500 years. And generally, the best tools are accessible to everyone: Fortune 500 companies can use Stripe/Twilio/Mercurial the same way an individual developer with a hobby project can. At least in the realm of software engineering, it is a golden age of equality.

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