Ravi Mohan's Blog

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Meanings Of Mastery

Recently I was startled when I heard someone say "Linus Torvalds is not a "master programmer" because he doesn't 'mentor' people ".

My first reaction was "bwaaa ha ha ha ha ha !!! yeah right ". To me whether someone is master at an activity has nothing to do with any behaviour on his part but is a function of the degree of skill he has.

While commenting on my last blog entry someone else picked up on the same theme. The reasons given didn't stand up to scrutiny since they were based on an arbitrary religion (Hinduism) and what a particular view into that religious system claimed was "true" and "divine", but the phenomenon was interesting.

Two people making similair claims about something that was to me, "obviously" nonsense. My friend Manoj chimed in with a sharp mail that claimed "master " is used in contexts which have nothing to do with either skill or students (e.g. Post Master ; Thanks Manoj, that was good feedback)

Time for a closer look.

After looking up various meanings and usages of the word (a good idea Sriram), I find that the word expresses three distinct concepts, applicable to three different situations.

The first is "An expert in a topic" as in "He is a Master of 3 languages". In this case the "of" in "master of" is followed by a skill set, a non living thing. I will call this "variant 1" or "skill based" mastery. Here mastery arises from being able to do things in a certain "field of operations" that none else (or very few other people ) can .It is in this sense that Linus Torvalds is a master programmer.His mastery is over programming and only very indirectly over people .With or without people he is still a master of programming.

The second has to do with power relationships (however established). In other words "master" means " One that has control over another or others " as in "the dog ran towards its master". This is the sense in which "Post Master" (a person who controls other workers and processes ina a post office) or "master of a ship" (a person who dominates and has authority over other people on a ship) is used. I will call his "variant 2" or "people based" mastery.

In other words, this variant of "mastery" is present only in a context that includes dominating other people. This domination could be granted involuntarily by the dominated person (as in a master - slave relationship) or voluntarily (as in a master disciple relationship ). The fact remains that this mastery involves the exercise of power whether benevolently or not.

There is a variant of this meaning which comes from the Guild system in Medieval Europe. The twist this adds is that the master has to be "licensed" by some process, usually involving the approval of other similair "masters" to teach. Anyone who is not so licensed by some form of "guild" is not a master. I shall call this variant 2A or "guild mastery".

Thus, while Jesus Christ was a "Master" by the variant 2 meaning, (people accepted him as master and he had disciples) and anybody who became his disciple voluntarily granted him a dominance in certain areas of life, by the guild variation, Jesus would not be a master unless approved of by other "masters". Given that only John the Baptist "approved of" or "licensed" Jesus (and John himself does not seem to have any kind of "guild" approval) we will have to infer that a self proclaimed "guild of religious teachers" would have rejected his "mastery ".

And if you look carefully you will see that the positive versions of variant 2 would also depend on variant 1. In other words, Jesus was looked up to as a "Master" (by his disciples), not because some guild or bunch of people said he was a master because he could do things (clarify deep moral dilemmas , answer questions, work miracles) that no one else in his time and place could.

So now the question becomes, which of these models is appropriate to software development? To a certain extent this is a subjective question. However, that being said, There are people who want variant2 (a master and his disciples) or 2A (a "guild" which "sanctions" or "confers" mastery).

In today's world which is essentially egalitarian, networked, democratic and open, I stand with those who believe that mastery in programming (or anything else) is of the first variant, based essentially on the degree of skill. If you can develop programs in a demonstrably superior fashion, then you are a master. If you don't have a single disciple you are still a master. If you don't have a "guild" sanctioning you ,you remain a master. In other words, a Master first becomes a master and then may choose to teach in whatever manner he thinks appropriate (Sriram's idea. Thanks Sriram!). He is not forced to teach to claim masterhood or be "conferred" masterhood by onlookers on the sidelines. Thus Linus may or may not be choosing to teach by letting his code be open source. It doesn't matter. His mastery is self evident from the skill with which he writes code.

Martin Fowler is a master technical writer and speaker because he can speak better and write better than (most) other people can. Not because he is part of the Agile Alliance or Chief Scientist of Thoughtworks or any other "title" based attribute. These other memberships and positions flow naturally to someone who is a master by the "skill based" meaning of the word.

The main problem I have with the Guild meaning is that its essential purpose seems to be to satisfy some kind of psychological craving for certainty in an uncertain world, in an attempt to assuage an inner shakiness by formulating fixed levels and labels. You don't need a three fold, "peer sanctioned" guild like stratification to recognize someone better than you at programming and learn from him/her. Any programmer worth his salt does so all the time. And so I reject McBreen's book as half baked.

And anyway, whatever model you want to follow, invoking arbitrary religious principles or nostalgia for a romanticized view of the past to justify that choice is sloppy thinking. The solutions for the problems of this century are to be found here and now, not in the past.

So if you want to be a master programmer, focus on how to improve your code skills . Don't bother with whether some arbitrary group of people like those found on say Advogato "rate" you. If you must have these "strokes" from other people to validate your self-worth, be aware that the ratings as "Master" too will automatically happen when you have attained the appropriate levels of skill. And by then you won't care what other people say your "level" is.

As Eric Raymond says in his loginataka, (a parody of a guru-shishya dialogue),

"Rather must you Become, and Become, and Become, until Hackers respect thy Power, and other Wizards hail thee as a Brother or Sister in Wisdom, and you wake up and realize that the Mantle hath lain unknown upon thy Shoulders since you knew not when."

[Thank you Manoj, Rajesh and Sriram, for helping me clarify my thinking. Prakash too, though I absolutely reject your "guru/hinduism/indian culture/the Bible is divine" argument]


Anonymous said...

Cool! I appreciate you for taking time to dig deeper and explain things with proper context setting. Now people can clearly understand which meaning they associate with and which one you associate with.

Rajesh Babu

Anonymous said...


This is really awesome!! You should get this published somewhere!!
Too good!


Anonymous said...

One more point, the word "Masterpiece" is used to refer to the most outstanding work of a creative artist or craftsman. It is not necessary that this guy takes private tuition if his work has to be called so, :-). hehe.

Tejaswi said...

I remember reading somewhere that Linus Torvalds was more of a master manager than a master programmer. Before you kill me for that, let me explain -

Many people had written variants of Unix (using varios design ideas/partial implementations, etc.), and all these guys are master hackers, or programmers, or whatever mantle you want to confer upon them. But Linus stands out because of the way Linux dominated the open-soruced Unix world. There was FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and other variants - but I wonder whatever happened to Theo de Raadt or Jordan Hubbard (I had to search the net for these names), and why is it that only Linus is so popular among even nerds/semi-nerds?

I think the way in which Linus bootstrapped the open source community into contributing to "his" Unix is commendable; more commendable than his code writing abilities (which might be somewhere up there as well). Astonishing as it might sound, he should be well respected for his Organizational and Managerial skills than his coding skills, which are at best, on par with his peer.

Ravi said...

Good point . Of course Linus being a master organizer/manager does not invalidate his mastery of programming . Neither does teh presence of a few people able to write a kernel . You don't have to be totally unique to be a master !

Having said that, you make an excellent (and thought provoking) point !

A combination of skills at a very high level would be awesome indeed .We should all be lucky enough to reach those levels on any one skill!