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28 June 2011

The creative side of IT

By Andrew Clifford

Even the most deeply technical parts of IT can be as creative as the work of artists and musicians.

When I first started out as a computer programmer I still lived with my parents. I went out with them to visit some of their arty friends, who had a son the same age as me. Hearing what job I was doing, they were very dismissive, and condescending, saying that they would rather their children did something more creative, and not just a button-pushing job like computers.

I kept my peace, but it did annoy me. I felt then, and still feel, that working in IT is very creative, in fact one of the most creative jobs there is.

I do not just mean using IT for arty activities, like graphic art or music technology. I think boring commercial IT is an extremely creative process. It involves inventing new things, the application of skill, and communicating ideas through different media.

This is easiest to see in the work business analysts do. They have to create new ways for businesses to function, and communicate these. It is as much an art as a science. The same applies to the management of people and of projects.

But even the most technical jobs in IT are creative. Technical work involves making hundreds or thousands of micro-decisions about the solution. This is deeply creative and has a huge impact on the outcome.

To show what I mean, I have been working on some of the core metadata for our MA2 product. This may seem to be just technical work, and some parts of it are. There has to be a minimum set of metadata which the underlying engine can interpret, and the design of this is an almost mathematical engineering task, creating the most concise and most flexible set of core capabilities.

However, the system supports dynamic metadata, allowing us to create new, more specialised metadata layers to support different ways of working. To make the system more usable, I have been defining a layer of more user-friendly metadata. This involves defining the capabilities and paradigms that we want to support, and working out how best to arrange and present these to the user.

The actual ideas we are working with may seem technical, such as:

  • Objects have descriptions to aid documentation.
  • Objects are automatically classified to make it easier to find.
  • Object definitions support inheritance.
  • Object definitions are arranged in libraries.
  • Container objects can specify how data changes are propagated through the container.

However, like a lot of technical work, what is going on behind the specialised technology is actually a deeply creative process. It involves communicating how the solution can be used for different purposes. It uses different media, in this case the media of logical structures and attributes. It requires a good deal of invention, and the application of skill.

This may not be everybody's idea of creativity, but for me, technical work like this is every bit as creative as music and art.

Next: Secure by design


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