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The Best Recipe

The Best Recipe

About two years ago, I decided that it would be "fun" to learn to cook. I figured I would be a quick learner; after all, I liked to eat (passion for the subject), I had been a skilled cabinetmaker (possessed manual skills), and I enjoyed watching "Iron Chef" on the Food Network (had an available learning resource). Compared to cabinetmaking and software development, how hard could it be?

When I told my wife, she adopted a Mona Lisa-type smile and told me what a good idea she thought it was. She was remarkably encouraging. So, I started on my journey to becoming a chef (the simple title of "cook" not seeming to properly express my culinary ambitions).

Having seen that the TV chefs all had really great cookware, knives, and gadgets, I went and did likewise - and during the time that many of the dot-coms were failing for lack of revenue, I single-handedly kept cooking.com in business. After watching this process for some time, my wife asked me when I was going to actually start cooking. I tried explaining: "Mastery of any new field of endeavor must have foundations and I am building those foundations now."

Susie countered: "Really? Well, all I know is that you can't move around in the kitchen without falling over Calphalon pots and pans, Sabatier knives, Cuisinart food processors, KitchenAid mixers - and you still haven't made a meal!"

Well, that was easily enough remedied. When my wife announced that her mother would be coming over for dinner on Saturday night, I announced that our menu for the evening would include Beef Tenderloin with Red-Wine and Marrow Sauce, Whole Stuffed Artichokes Braised in White Wine, Potato Nests with Sautéed Shitake Mushrooms, and Carrots Glazed with Balsamic Vinegar and Butter. (Having in the past learned something about lowering expectations, I didn't let on that I had plans for whipping up a homemade Lemon Sorbet with Blackberry Sauce for dessert.)

It all started well enough - we have a great farmer's market in Atlanta, and shopping there was actually fun. I came home with rather more than I intended, but no matter - my life as a chef had begun!

I knew that the TV chefs didn't use cookbooks, but thought that for my first couple of soirees, I might be forgiven this indiscretion. I now began perusing cookbooks and resources in earnest. Ah! Here was something interesting: apparently, the secret to great tenderloin was cooking it at 200 degrees - a temperature much lower than most of the recipes had suggested. And here was something else: the really good balsamic vinegar was aged for as much as 100 years - and had the prices to prove it: a 4.5 oz bottle cost over $200! I hoped that my more frugal selection (only $22 for the same-sized bottle) wouldn't doom my efforts.

Saturday finally came - of that I'm sure. What exactly happened on Saturday I'm far less certain of - a phenomenon psychologists call blocking, in which a person deletes memories of events too painful to recall. I do remember certain images, like mental snapshots: the family seated at the table resplendent with fine china, crystal - and a completely raw roast (my indispensable instant-on digital thermometer barely registering 90 degrees).

I recall my mother-in-law's look when she discovered that I hadn't removed the inedible parts of the artichoke (who knew you couldn't eat the whole thing?) I remember my wife gamely trying to eat the sodden mass of indistinguishable ingredients that were on her plate. And I can still see my son staring in horror and fascination at his purple carrots. We never made it to the sorbet. We abandoned the "meal" and made a quick trip for hamburgers.

Well, since then, I've learned some lessons along my torturous path to being able to produce decent meals and over those two years, I've continually seen the parallels between lessons in cooking and lessons in software development.

What I've Learned About Cooking - and Programming

  • Cooking is hard - really hard. TV chefs make it look easy; don't believe it. If you're going to master something as complex as cooking, it won't happen quickly or painlessly. You're going to have some spectacular failures, a good deal more mediocre results, and maybe, occasionally, a real success.
    - Parallel: Programming is hard, too. While ColdFusion makes it easier to get started in coding, if you're going to excel at developing applications, you're going to have to go beyond the basics - and for that, you're going to have to learn and apply good software development practices, things that transcend the specific language.
  • When you do your job well, you've simply met people's expectations. When you fail, you eat out.
    - Parallel: When you've written great code, your boss probably won't call a general company meeting to praise you in front of your peers. That sort of thing only happens in movies. A better strategy is to excel for the simple joy that comes from excellence. Of course, as Louis Pasteur once observed, chance favors the prepared mind. We can't do much about chance; we can do a great deal about preparing our minds.
  • Success is all about preparation. This is what the French call mise-en-place, a term referring to having all the ingredients necessary and ready to combine at the moment of cooking. If you start on a dish without proper preparation, you'll quickly find that your carrots will burn while you're struggling to clarify the butter. Note: TV chefs have a small army of assistants who do their preparation for them.
    - Parallel: Don't be so quick to start writing code. Take the time to thoroughly think through the job you're going to do. Do you really understand what the user is doing? Have you thought about the fact that the requirements that the user has assured you are set in stone are, in fact, absolutely bound to occur? Have you investigated buying third-party software for parts of your application? What will integration be like? Are you using a framework? Are you rigorous about creating tests before you code? Are you making use of design patterns? All this requires discipline up front, but it pays great dividends when the unexpected begins to occur.
  • Good tools make a big difference. They're not magic and they don't guarantee success, but when you're ready to use them, good tools will support you. The last thing a novice needs is tools that betray them.
    - Parallel: If a chef is concerned about things like pans, pots, and knives, we need to be concerned about XML, SQL, Java, etc. Mastery comes from knowing which tool to use in which case. There's usually more than one right answer for this and part of learning about your tools is learning the ones that you prefer - those that "fit your hand" best, so to speak.
  • There's simply no substitute to learning from another, in person. While books are great, they can't give you the actual experience of doing it, and of seeing how an experienced professional thinks and plans. Have you ever wondered how to tell when a piece of meat is cooked, and to what degree: rare, medium, or well? There's a great technique involving your fingers and comparing the firmness of the muscle between your thumb and forefinger with the meat you're cooking. Unfortunately, I can't really tell you, I need to show you!
    - Parallel: While books can help you, there are some extremely important aspects of software development that simply don't translate to the written word, so take every opportunity to work with others from whom you can learn. Also, don't overlook the value of good instructor-based training; you can jumpstart your skills in the right class.
  • Cooking is about coordination as much as tools or technique. You're not cooking a single dish, but putting together a meal. If the potatoes are done while the roast is still bleeding, you have a failure, no matter how good the potatoes are.
    - Parallel: Ultimately, our ability to succeed doesn't rely on being able to masterfully manipulate a three-dimensional array or to handle matrix math, but to produce a complete software application. If you do a great job writing XPath queries, but the software is late, buggy, or doesn't integrate with other systems, you have a failure on your hands no matter how good the XPath queries are.
  • Simplicity rules. In many areas of craft and art, complexity is a killer. Now this doesn't mean that the end result should be "simple" (e.g., hamburger with fries), but that when creating dishes that are involved, the entire operation should be broken down into a series of simple steps that can be handled easily.
    - Parallel: Much of good software craftsmanship practices are related to keeping things simple. This is the key to encapsulation - being able to concentrate on only one thing at a time and, when done, forget about the implementation and concern yourself only with the interface.
  • Knowing how something is done is not the same as being able to do it. A logician might phrase it thus: knowledge of the process is necessary but not sufficient. What could be easier to describe - or harder to master - than the making of a truly great pie crust or an omelet? There is simply no substitute for practice. And practice usually entails a high risk of failure until the process is mastered. The purpose of practice is to transfer the intellectual knowledge into your fingertips, your nose, your taste so that you are so intimately connected with your materials that you do the right things naturally. Practice makes what is at first unnatural, natural.
    - Parallel: We might call this the Spectator Syndrome, in which people convince themselves that reading about something, or hearing a talk on it, is the same as having actual application experience. One large problem with this syndrome is that it makes us prey to the hype from vendors, who can slant the talk or presentation to present their product or technology in the best possible light. But we all know that no product or technology is perfect, and if our first real exposure to it is on a job where success is critical, we're likely to lead lives of high excitement in areas that we wish to be highly predictable.
  • Dull knives are dangerous. Dull knives require a much greater degree of force, and with that force comes the possibility of the knife slipping and doing damage to either the cook, the food, or both. It's not glamorous work, but learning to properly sharpen knives is very important for success.
    - Parallel: Have you customized your editor so that you're using shortcuts, code templates, snippets, etc? If not, you're using a dull knife. One feature of ColdFusion Studio that I rely on is the ability to create a code template, to provide a keyboard shortcut that will automate the typing of common code. This has a huge impact on productivity and is very simple to set up. The principle is that for the tools we use on a daily basis, we should learn enough to sharpen them so that they serve our purpose more exactly.
  • Don't try new stuff on company, but do try it on family. What can be more discouraging, as well as embarrassing, as trying out a new dish that flops in front of company? My mother-in-law could not have been more gracious about the beef tenderloin fiasco, but I still wish I had tried it out before she came over. On the other hand, if you don't experiment, you'll become boring, so try new stuff out on your family. But keep the number of a good pizza delivery place nearby for those times that your experiments are less than successful.
    - Parallel: Don't volunteer to base a mission-critical application on untried technology ("Gee, how hard can CORBA be, after all?") or you'll set yourself up for failure. But, too, make use of your projects to go to school on. Pick some aspect of the project that is not mission critical, particularly a small part of the product, and try out new technologies on that. If you fail, you can switch back to a proven technology and you'll have gained valuable experience. If you succeed, you've just added another tool you can use on mission-critical products.

    I could regale you with tales from two years of trial and error. During the first year, it was mainly error - such as the time that I decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner. You know, when they tell you, "Put the turkey in the oven," but they don't tell you which side goes up; you're just expected to know that. Well, now I know: it's the opposite side I put up on my first Thanksgiving attempt.

    Nor can I forget the first time I tried to make choux pastry. The results were so bad that we had to air out the house. Then, there was the leek soup I made without first completely peeling the leeks. And the three pounds of Chilean sea bass (at $15.00/lb) that went into the trash. Or the Christmas dinner of Sole Florentine that went the same way as the sea bass. But you get the point.

    I'd like to assure you that after some initial "false starts," things went smoothly and today, I'm a first-rate chef. I'd even be willing to settle for saying that after some very unsuccessful attempts, I mastered the art and craft of cooking and that I'm a darned good cook. But I can't honestly say either of those things.

    I can say that after two years of practice - sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding - that I still love cooking and that I'm getting better at it every day. I'm getting to enjoy the successes while not being too tough on myself when things fail. And I think that's not such a bad place to be - in both cooking and programming. Because ultimately, it's not about the ability to impress others or get paid lots of money (not that I object!); it's about taking pride in your work and having the humility to acknowledge the difficulties of attaining true excellence while still persevering. That, it seems to me, is the best recipe for real success.

  • More Stories By Hal Helms

    Hal Helms is a well-known speaker/writer/strategist on software development issues. He holds training sessions on Java, ColdFusion, and software development processes. He authors a popular monthly newsletter series. For more information, contact him at hal (at) halhelms.com or see his website, www.halhelms.com.

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    Most Recent Comments
    Deborah Russell 07/22/03 09:02:00 AM EDT

    "It's about taking pride in your work and having the humility to acknowledge the difficulties of attaining true excellence while still persevering" is a quote worth remembering. Most people have fallen into programming like Hal fell into cooking...how hard can it be? I really appreciated the article and the ability to absorb from a professional.

    Stephanie Hanna 07/16/03 03:14:00 PM EDT

    Hal Helms? article was very thought provoking and informative. Being a cook with a certificate in French Cooking trying to learn ColdFusion MX late in a career of book, magazine and technical document publishing for the web, I am having a reversed experience, but could really relate. I enjoyed the article and appreciated his words of wisdom.

    Stephanie Hanna

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