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The Software Artists: Practicing, Rehearsing, and Performing Software

Software development is a performance exhibiting
skills developed by an individual—often in groups of teams...
-Richard P. Gabriel

Real artists ship.
-Steve Jobs

Since the language of art criticism provides useful tools for
evaluating software, and the practice of teaching music provides
useful approaches to teaching software, it is reasonable to think
that the practice of artistic performance should provide useful
ways to approach creating software.

Only one way to build software has ever been acknowledged:
software is designed, coded, and tested. Sometimes the
design/code/test cycle is done a single time, sometimes
design/code/test is done iteratively or incrementally, sometimes,
as in Test Driven Development, the steps are moved around, so
that the cycle goes test/design/code.

But this is not how human beings create a performance. Instead
of design/code/test, artists have a cycle of

Since human beings have been creating performances since
prehistoric times, it is worthwhile to see if creating software might
benefit from the practices of artists.


Before an artist is prepared to perform, the artist must have a
certain set of skills. Even the most naive or improvisational artist
will have practiced some aspects of their craft before performing.
Practice is where the artist acquires and improves the basic skills
of the craft. A musician will use practice to learn scales and
chords and rhythms, an actor will practice lines and passages, a
painter will practice brush strokes and coloring.

By practice the artist acquires not only the fundamental
knowledge of the craft, but also masters the necessary tools for
that craft. A musician will learn an instrument, a painter will
learn brushes and pigments and canvases, an actor will learn
speech and movement.

When practicing for software, the software creator will learn
applications and programming languages, design patterns and
editors. The software creator will also learn operating systems
and network protocols, the basic frameworks on which software
is created.

When practicing for a particular software performance, a software
creator might use a “spike” in the agile sense, or a simple
prototype of some feature or features to be developed.
Regression tests could be considered as a tool for practice,
because such tests reinforce good software behavior.


As Dr. Gabriel says, software is created by groups. But whether
solo or in a group, artists rehearse before they perform. Rehearsal
is where artists behave as if they were performing. In rehearsal,
the various aspects of the performance are worked out, and the
performers examine the boundaries of the performance to make
certain that what is expected of them is in fact not only possible,
but will also be attractive to an audience.

Integration testing and functional testing might be tools of
software rehearsal, also beta versions and “dogfooding”, using the
software internally or among a small group before releasing the
software. User experience testing might be part of rehearsal.
Pair-programming could be a tool of software rehearsal, as could
code inspection.

Investigation is a key part of rehearsal. After practicing, artists
still need to know where misunderstandings exist, where aspects
of the performance may break down, where skills may not be
adequate to the demands of the performance.

Iteration is a key part of rehearsal. Rehearsal often involves a
close examination of the performance looking for ambiguity and
wrong expression. Upon discovering such issues, the small part
of the work exhibiting the problem is reworked until the
performers agree on the proper way to conduct the performance.

Listening to a symphony orchestra rehearse is enlightening. A
major symphony orchestra is comprised of the most
accomplished musicians on Earth. These musicians have
dedicated their lives to practice and performance. A symphony
orchestra is also an extremely expensive operation.

In a symphony rehearsal, the conductor or music director will
have the orchestra play only a few bars from passages that the
conductor believes to be problematic in some way. Based on
only a few seconds or minutes of playing, the conductor will
adjust the performance of various players and sections of the
orchestra in a very short period of time. These adjustments are
understood to also apply to the rest of the performance.
Some things about artistic performance could greatly improve
software performance:

  • For an artistic performance, everyone on the project has a role on the stage. The best agile development projects emulate this behavior, since everyone on the team is always actively involved in creating the software.
  • If rehearsals for an artistic performance are poor, the performers may retire to practice more before continuing with rehearsal. The notion of a software “spike” is very much like this, when the software creators put their regular work aside in order to learn something new about a relevant aspect of creating the software.
  • Performers are rarely micro-managed. Successful artistic projects and successful software projects assume that the performers have a certain level of competence, and remove people who do not have that level of competence.
  • The value of practice and rehearsal is measured qualitatively not quantitatively. For both software and art, the creators worry first about the excellence of the performance, and only later about the number of tickets or copies of the performance to be sold.

Serious artists perform their art for an audience. Serious software
creators release software for their users.

Performance is where value is realized, where expertise is on
display, where practice and rehearsal pay off: for the performers,
the creators, the investors, and for the audience.

Maybe it is time for the software development practice to begin
referring not to “the users” but to “the audience”.

To the Studio

Artists' studios, rehearsal studios, movie studios, and recording
studios are busy places. They are full of the artists' tools, toys,
and works in progress, and they are arranged for the convenience
and inspiration of the artists.

A factory floor is arranged for the convenience of managing the

This tension between the artist and the manufacturer is not new.
For instance, Andy Warhol's studio was called The Factory.
Many movies and photographs of The Factory exist. The irony is

It is notable that cubicle farms, departments, and isolated offices
are giving way to bullpens, open spaces, war rooms, co-working
space, home offices, even coffeehouses and brewpubs. The
correlation to artists' studios is clear.

It is notable that a small number of software creators are already
being treated like artists. Linus Torvalds, David Heinemeier
Hansson, and Richard Stallman all come to mind.

Perhaps in the future the software artists will practice and
rehearse in their software studios so that they can release software
performances to their audiences. The artists and the audiences
and everyone else involved in these software performances will
understand the value of these performances, and the feedback
between artist and audience will increase the value of these
performances. People have been doing exactly this in art for
thousands of years.