In the theatre and movies, the technique known as 'method acting' has a religious status among its adherents. Sceptics love to mock this attitude, and they tell the following story about an encounter between Lord Olivier and Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man. Hoffman, a famously devoted method actor, had prepared for a scene in the movie by running full tilt through Central Park, and panted up to the set, covered with mud and brambles, just as Olivier rolled up in a limousine. Olivier asked Hoffman what on earth had happened to him. Nothing, replied Hoffman; he was just preparing himself for his role. Oliver responded with an astonished: "But my dear boy, why don't you just act?"
I can think of few professions which obsess as much about their methods as acting and programming. From 'method acting' to structured programming and open source, we focus with religious intensity on the way we do things. In fact, we get involved in such frequent, detailed, and bitter arguments that we frequently seem to forget to ask why we do them. In all the obsessive arguments on web forums about why we should or should not avoid Windows, sign an NDA, or click the 'I Agree' button on a EULA, I rarely see any mention of the reason for doing the work in the first place. The triumph or trashing of open source gets treated as an end in itself.
Programming and the programming community do not, or at least should not, exist as ends in themselves. They serve a purpose. Whatever our professional controversies, we owe it to ourselves and the world we live in to relate them, at some point, to the needs of people who will use what we write. To put the word in its larger context, we should stop fussing so much about how we do what we do, or how we distribute the fruits of our actions, and just act.
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More Articles by John G. Spragge © 2011-06-19 John G. Spragge