A march towards quality

So, I have been having discussions with a very good friend of mine over the past many months. While I have bounced around ideas on how to write about specific topics, I have never been able to actually start. Today, he challenged me to write something anyway, no matter how shitty it is. After racking my brains on how to come up with the perfect subject matter, I was reminded of this story from the book Art & Fear. Ever since I read it, I have been boring all my friends and everyone I meet with it. It is a famous parable in the book, and goes something like this:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

While the implications of the story are obvious, and most of you are nodding your head vigorously while applauding the simplicity of the message, it is worthwhile to delve a little deeper. The story is particularly powerful because our initial reaction is one of amazement and awe. However, the awe subsides very quickly as comprehension takes hold and it is immediately obvious from our own experiences that this must be true.

Then, why is our initial reaction one of awe? I believe it is primarily because we are less inclined to believe that a random group of students can iteratively learn without having any outside impetus to do so (since they were tasked only with coming up with quantity, not quality). However, when the discussion becomes personal, we can feel the truth of the story because clearly, that is exactly what we would do in that situation. I certainly would like to think so.

In any case, the clear message is that it’s far superior to start from a horrible iteration and work your way up to quality instead of sitting, reading and theorizing about the right way to get there. I must admit, I have been plenty guilty of the latter. Actually, in software development, quantity does inform quality. Over time, the most prolific developers end up writing the best code.

So, I am going to start small and get back into the habit of writing random thoughts on this blog. If, and when, the material becomes post-worthy for other places, I might actually publish. But for now, it is all quantity with absolute disregard towards quality.


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