Interview: Martin Fowler – man in the know

I am in search of an empty room at the Øredev conference. Normally this is an easy task, but I’ve got Martin Fowler on my tail. My mind is still blank. What on earth can I ask him that he hasn’t already written himself?

Finally, an empty room, well almost. Another speaker, Erik Dörnenburg, is sitting half way into his screen and mutters.
– What’s up, I ask.
– I’ve updated my machine and my demo doesn’t work. I’ve got 45 minutes until the presentation.
We sat down next to him. Do not disturb a developer while he’s coding…

So I got a man who has coined phrases like Dependency Injection and POJO in front of me. What next? Martin is easily recognizable both in accent and appearance, a frequent and brilliant speaker.
He has an excellent web site, http://www.martinfowler.com, which contains loads about his work. Articles and references abound. That is when it suddenly hits me – who is he as a programmer and person?

Q: When was the last time you coded?
Well, I do code my own website. But it’s been a while since I had any paying customers. I’ve been pairing quite recently though. A real delivery? That was some time ago. I’m actually afraid to lose contact with code, but I have smart people around me.

Q: But what makes you tick?
I enjoy trying to figure out new techniques – to organize knowledge. I see myself as a conduit [ledning] for transferring knowledge, to process what is out there and make some kind of structure out of it. Brian Foot actually described me as an “intellectual jackal with a good taste in carrion” [intellektuell schackal med god smak för kadaver].
I look around for interesting stuff and try to make sense of it.
The “Refactoring” is a good example. I figured out how to describe it and wrote a book that came out when it could make a difference and move the area forward.
I also enjoy writing a lot, that’s a big thing. I’m better now at speaking, but that’s not what makes me tick.

Q: You’ve written quite a few books – how do they compare?
Out of the five, “Uml Distilled” sold more copies than the others put together. Usually you can’t make a living out of your books, I guess I could though.
All of the books had their good sides, but I would have to say that it was fun to write with Kent Beck [red: wrote “Extreme Programming”, created JUnit etc]. We were in tune and could support each other through the dull bits.
I would have to say though that I’m proudest of “Refactoring”. It’s an important technique and didn’t get the attention it should have received – the book helped.

Q: How did you start out?
I was an independent consultant for many years. Giving talks was a good way of getting jobs. Articles same thing – it got my name known.
Also, I write something because I don’t understand a certain area or technology. It’s a good way to learn.
Erik is now on the phone with California. We calculate that time is roughly 6:30 there – in the morning.

Q: Then what? How come you started working for Thoughtworks (TW)?
I’ve been there for six years and done a lot of consulting. I never wanted to work for a company, but there was something about TW that made me interested.
Get the work done and tons of bright people. But more importantly is that it is a sort of social experiment. A notion that good people makes a difference.
I hope we can affect IT, which is a difficult and skilled exercise at best.

Q: What is the most difficult part of being a celebrity?
I’m not an extrovert person. I’m not good at the “person to person”. I get emails with questions like “I got a problem on…what is the magic trick”. They worked for months on it and I can only point to a book. That clearly wasn’t an answer they liked. It’s frustrating.
However, celebrity is also a nice thing – it opens a few doors. I can email people like Rod Johnson [red CEO of Interface 21 that created the Spring framework] if I have a question about something. And he will answer.
People tend to think I’m an ingenious programmer. I’m not. I’m pretty good, but not necessarily that great.
Erik suddenly spits out:
– F—!…ok the demo will be shorter.

Q: Looking forward, what’s next?
Oh, there is tons of stuff to write about. The design patterns area for instance. I’m also interested in DSL [domain specific languages] and agile development. But in agile there are too many writers and I don’t like competition. There are too many smart people in agile development.
My strategy is to look for topics that no one has written about. Basically I don’t foretell the future.

Q: What are your top three pieces of advice to a programmer?
My first advice must be to learn to collaborate with the user or purchaser. The really good ideas usually come from them. You don’t have to be an expert to do this. This I found to be a good general advice.
Secondly, it would be “continuous learning”. It’s like running up a downwards-moving escalator – you have to keep running.
The third one is difficult…
“Buy lots of books by good authors” would be it.
Erik suddenly releases a big:
– Yes!
I saw Erik’s demo some twenty minutes later – it was really good.
As for Martin, our discussions continued well into the debate panel and beyond. He would frequently forget his back pain and sip into some extra energy pack. I wonder how he did that.

Originally published in JayView.

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