Modern computer hardware is amazing. Manufacturers have orchestrated billions of pieces of silicon into terrifyingly complex and efficient structures that sweep electrons through innumerable tangled paths, branchings, and reunions with the sole purpose of performing computations at more than a billion times per second. This awe-inspiring piece of computational wizardry has at its disposal multiple billions of uniquely addressible silicon plates where it can store the results of millions of computations in an array of several vanishingly small chips. All of this hardware, though each component often sits no further than 7 or 8 centimeters away from the others, cycles so fast that the speed of light, a physical law of the universe, limits the rate at which they communicate with each other.
So why is software still slow?
Why does it take your operating system 10 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute to boot up? Why does your word processor freeze when you save a document on the cloud? Why does your web browser take 3, 4, 10 seconds to load a web page? Why does your phone struggle to keep more than a few apps open at a time? And why does each update somehow make the problem worse?
We made it slow.
Not necessarily you, not necessarily me, not necessarily any single person in particular. But we, the software development community, made it slow by ignoring the fundamental reality of our occupation. We write code, code that runs on computers. Real computers, with central processing units and random access memory and hard disk drives and display buffers. Real computers, with integer and bitwise math and floating point units and L2 caches, with threads and cores and a tenuous little network connection to a million billion other computers. Real computers not built for ease of human understanding but for blindingly, incomprehensibly fast speed.
A lot of us have forgotten that.
In our haste to get our products, our projects, the works of our hands and minds, to as many people as possible, we take shortcuts. We make assumptions. We generalize, and abstract, and assume that just because these problems have been solved before that they never need to be solved again. We build abstraction layers, then forget we built them and build more on top.
And it's true that many of us think we do not have the time, the money, the mental bandwidth to always consider these things in detail. The deadline is approaching or the rent is due or we have taxes to fill out and a manager on our back and someone asking us why we always spend so much time at the office, and we just have to stick the library or virtual machine or garbage collector in there to cover up the places we can't think through right now.
Others of us were never taught to think about the computer itself. We learned about objects and classes and templates and how to make our code clean and pretty. We learned how to write code to make the client or the manager or the teacher happy, but made the processor churn. And because we did, that amazing speed we'd been granted was wasted, by us, in a death by a thousand abstraction layers.
But some of us aren't satisfied with that.
Some of us take a few extra steps into the covered territory, the wheels sitting, motionless, in a pile behind us, examine their designs and decide there is a better way. The more experienced among us remember how software used to be, the potential that we know exists for computer programs to be useful, general, and efficient. Others of us got fed up with the tools we were expected to use without complaint, but which failed us time and time again. Some of us are just curious and don't know what's good for us. Don't trust what we've been told is good for us.
We sat down and looked at our hardware, and examined our data, and thought about how to use the one to transform the other. We tinkered, and measured, and read, and compared, and wrote, and refined, and modified, and measured again, over and over, until we found we had built the same thing, but 10 times faster and incomparably more useful to the people we designed it for. And we had built it by hand.
That is what Handmade means. It's not a technique or a language or a management strategy, it isn't a formula or a library or an abstraction. It's an idea. The idea that we can build software that works with the computer, not against it. The idea that sometimes an individual programmer can be more productive than a large team, that a small group can do more than an army of software engineers and *do it better*. The idea that programming is about transforming data and we wield the code, the tool we use to bend that data to our will.
It doesn't require a degree, or a dissertation, or a decade of experience. You don't need an expensive computer or a certificate or even prior knowledge. All you need is an open mind and a sense of curiosity. We'll help you with the rest.
Will you join us?
Will you build your software by hand?
Written by Andrew Chronister