Matthew Butt

Creativity in Software Development

Posted in programming by bnathyuw on 9 September 2018

I shared yesterday’s post with some friends, who were keen to explore what we mean when we talk about creativity in software development.

Alastair made an interesting comment:

…it made me reconsider software dev as a creative endeavour, but I think I came to the conclusion that it is. For me, I think there is a gap between a creative art like writing, especially one which has an expressive mirror like acting, and a purely creative activity like, e.g., whittling a stick or constructing a building.

I think there is value in disentangling our concepts of creativity, and I find Alastair’s distinction between the creative arts and simpler forms of creation very useful.

There’s also an ambiguity in the word ‘create’, as it can refer simply to making things, as well as to the creative endeavours we would like to characterise.

So rather than ask ‘Is software development a creative activity?’, I tend to consider a narrower question: ‘Is there a place for creative thinking in software development?’

As the most basic level, I see creative thinking as making new links between concepts. Once you have made the link, you can engage other thought processes, for example deductive thinking, to explore the consequences and implications of that link.

But because the link isn’t already there, you can’t find it by rational thought; you need a leap of imagination to reach it.

There are some sorts of problem that I can tackle best once I’ve slept. On a few lucky occasions I’ve been able to take an afternoon nap, and woken up with a new idea to investigate, but this usually means taking the idea home with me and letting it brew overnight.

Here are a few examples of problems in software development that can be tackled with creative thinking:

  • How should we name this element?
  • What is the appropriate metaphor for this system?
  • Has a similar problem already been solved? Is there a pattern we can apply here?
  • What test should we write first? What test should we write next?
  • What is the best way to split this system into smaller parts?

And of course, because software development in an organisation is a social activity, the need for creative thinking extends far beyond the design of the software.

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Bring your Shadow to Work

Posted in mental health, work by bnathyuw on 8 September 2018

There‘s an idea in certain circles that we should be able to bring our whole selves to work.

There are aspects of this notion that I find unproblematically wonderful. For those of us who are invisible members of minority groups, the ability to drop the mask and be open about our identities can help us find a level of safety and inclusion at work.

There are areas that I find problematic, particularly questions about how permeable the work/life barrier should be. These are questions for another day.

The point I’m thinking about today is that there are aspects of all of us that are unpleasant. We think dark thoughts and entertain transgressive fantasies. These are parts of our whole self, but do we really want to bring them to work?

Carl Jung characterises this aspect of us as our Shadow, and sees our encounters with our Shadow as part of the way we Individuate ourselves. Repression and denial of the Shadow can lead to dysfunction: we can become overwhelmed by it and start Acting Out our fantasies, rather than enjoying them in the privacy of our mind.

So I find a tension here: being a psychologically healthy person requires us to have a healthy relationship with the dark areas of our minds, to admit these areas into our whole selves. But if we are to bring our whole selves to work, then we need to bring these dark areas to work as well.

This question becomes more pressing if we accept that there is a close relationship between our Shadow and our creativity. If we hope to do creative work, then we need to be able to dip our bucket into this dark well.

In this context, I read something interesting in an interview with Phoebe Waller-Bridge:

More than anything, she says, as a writer she wants to show women indulging their appetites and venting their grievances. “We sexualise women all the time in drama and TV. They are objectified. But an exploration of one woman’s creative desire is really exciting. She can be a nice person, but the darker corners of her mind are unusual and fucked up, because everyone’s are.” Has she always been able to say the unsayable? “Yes. As long as it feels truthful, as long as it’s pointing at the elephant, it is always exciting.” [Emphasis mine]

And this got me thinking again: Waller-Bridge is making quite a name for herself by bringing the darker corners of the mind, the Shadow, into her work. As a screenwriter this may be rather more straightforward than for a software developer, for example. But is there a way we can openly and honestly bring these aspects of ourselves to work? Is a truly psychologically safe workplace one where we can invite our Shadows?

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