Trades, Crafts, and Certification

Dan North says that programming is a trade, and not a craft.  I agree with him that it’s a trade, like plumbing and wiring.  I’ve already disagreed with his definition of craft.  I’d say that programming is a craft only when it’s done well.  I’d also say that plumbing and wiring are crafts when done well.  Rather than a definition, how about a couple examples to illustrate the point?

We’ve got an excellent plumber.  He’s not producing art, but he does a neat job.  The pipes run straight and are well supported.  When he’s repairing old work, he may cut out a section that’s been patched numerous times and replace it with new, more reliable, work.  When he has to cut holes in the wall to reach old plumbing, he repairs those holes so they work isn’t obvious.

The electrician who wired our new house is a different matter.  electrical panel installationHe took shortcuts as he saw fit.  Here’s the brand new electrical installation in our new house.  He sized the box with absolutely no room for expansion, even though he knew that we’d want to add more outlets in the unfinished basement.  The new box was actually smaller than the one in the preceding house that we demolished.  Our insistence that this was not acceptable was rejected, but his neglecting to allow for one circuit caused him to expand the installation.  So he slapped up a sub-panel.  Notice the care with which he mounted it partially on the wooden support and partially hanging in mid-air.  Notice how some wires go straight up into the ceiling area, some go through the board, and some go around the edge of the board.  It’s going to be a major chore to do any further work in this area.  That’s kept me from making the adjacent workshop area easy to use.  Moving forward is going to require major rework.

Dan is right that we’d rather our systems be built by craftsmen.  This was no day-jobber, though.  This electrician owns his own business (as does our plumber).  He’s certified as a master electrician.  That means he went through apprenticeship and testing.  The electrical panels are plastered with stickers from the building inspector saying that the installation meets the requirements of the electrical code.  Both the electrician, and his work, are certified by bodies empowered by law.

And yet he did crappy work that did not satisfy his customer.  And we, as his customer, will pay the price for his crappy work every time we go to add or modify anything in this area.

We, as customers, cannot rely on certifications to reassure us.  Even referrals can let us down.  The builder (who did an excellent job in most ways) provided good to excellent sub-contractors except for this one.  I think the builder has finally given up on this sub-contractor, but it’s too late to help us.

In the end, there’s no way to eliminate shoddy workmanship.  But we can promote craftsmanship and the people who practice it.  We can help those who are willing to learn and practice.  It’s a messy world and we can’t fix that.  But we must do what we can, or it only gets worse.

10 Replies to “Trades, Crafts, and Certification”

  1. I certainly agree with your conclusions. I also agree with how you got to them. I gather by your emboldened statement, though, that you believe that because the electrician was a certified master, and the building inspector says the installation was up to code, that both processes aren’t useful tools in promoting craftsmanship. Is that correct? That is–because this one electrician has demonstrated that he meets the minimum skill and knowledge standards of mastery, and because he can create installations which meet the minimum standards for safety required by law, that those standards aren’t helpful in promoting craftsmanship?

    I have contended and continue to contend that one key enabler of good craftsmanship is the ability to measure a practitioner’s skill. I contend that what you can’t measure, you don’t understand. I support both objective and subjective measurement tools–because in complex situations, it’s generally not practical to make measurements purely objective.

    I further contend that one instance does not a trend make. Sure–there’s bad master electricians. The question is–if you hired 50 master electricians to do some work, what fraction would be doing a good job, a craftsman-like job, compared to the fraction if there were no standards for electricians at all, and you just had to hire whomever was at hand? In other words, does a minimum performance standard help weed out those who are incompetent?

    Finally: I’d be the last to contend that testing is the *only* ingredient of a healthy craftsmanship movement or in developing excellent programmers. It’s simply one tool–a way to measure oneself both for one’s own edification, and to help others gauge your breadth of knowledge.

  2. Jerry, I’d say your contentions are far to simplistic.

    I’d say that “measuring a practitioner’s skill” is fraught with peril. It implies that there is an objective right way. It assumes that the measurer is correct in choosing which aspects to measure. It assumes that the measurements accurately correspond with the qualities we truly value. It presumes that the observations we make are representative of the practitioner’s behavior at other times.

    As for weeding out the incompetent, an observation of the medical industry shows that it’s impossible to do so. While some incompetent individuals will eventually lose their license to do so, others will move from place to place to stay ahead of this process. And new incompetents enter the profession all the time.

    Attempts to improve the software development profession with testing and certification is, at best, a double-edged sword. It’s difficult to find agreement on what the qualities should be tested or certified. My experience with testing and certification in the software development field is that they’ve often been used to promote the opinions of those with power in the testing and certification organizations. I’m not convinced that’s the best way forward for the industry, no matter how noble the motivations of those who would do so.

  3. Absolutely agree with you!

    Trade is being paid for something (same as profession) not a guarantee of workmanship or passion. Despite the abundance of certification and guilds etc, you still have tons of shoddy tradesmen.

    Its no different to the creation of software.

    Thank you for also making it clear this is a totally different relationship from customer/solution or business/technical. Its worker/’the work’.

    If the worker cares very little about the work (aka workmanship, pride in work) there is little to be done.

    When the worker cares about ‘the work’ then we have craft (it is only from here we can start to talk about mastery or levels of excellence).

    Also it is also useful to note that this worker/’the work’ relationship is fundamental to the systems around it (customers, management). If the relationship is bad, the work is shoddy, the customer is unhappy and no further money is forthcoming. If the relationship is good, customer delight is a fantastic consequence.

    I disagree about the weeding out of incompetence. I believe its possible, albeit a longwinding and involved road. We can weed out the incompetent, but its not by certification. It will take a huge joint effort by the community of the passionate and committed employers who resolutely won’t stand for incompetence and who will support the growth of those aspiring to care about ‘the work’.

    Well done George and thank you for contributing this hugely pragmatic and sensible angle to the debate.

  4. Question? is all the wiring, fixtures, outlets,etc shoddy in the whole house or is it a matter of not enough room in the breaker panel. The main panel looks like it is wired properly from what I can see, the sub panes looks like an scab on.

    Since the requirement for Arc Fault Circuit Interruper(AFCI) breakers it is harder to judge the number of breaker spaces that will be needed. Breakers come as large as 40 spaces for residential installations. Each AFCI breaker require one full 1″ space. Not sticking up for the electrician, just showing how it could happen.


    1. Thanks for your comment, LD. I believe that the wiring is safe enough. It seems odd to me that the electrician would expect that a new house (with an unfinished basement) would have no need for room to add additional circuits. He was planning to leave one completely-filled box, but had to add the sub-panel when he neglected to count the circuits quite right. This box is smaller than the one in the house that this house replaced.

  5. I couldn’t agree more on your blog George. Electricians who are license and have gone through certifications will have to their job at times they don’t consider how their customer’s would feel.

    I believe, this should be the case. Companies should re-train their electricians to be more friendly and courteous enough to their customers.

  6. You point out a great distinction that consumers never really look at. Certified holds a lot of weight but the one willing to go the “extra mile” makes all the difference (as you know too well).

    I’m sorry you had to be the “guinea pig” but I thank you for making customers aware of other factors to consider before hiring a certified plumber, electrician, etc. It will only reward the certified “craftsman” as well.

  7. This is a great example of how certification doesn’t equal quality. The electrician in question did the bare minimum to meet safety requirements and demonstrated terrible customer service.

  8. Unfortunately I think contractors are so used to homeowners accepting the absolute cheapest quote that they have become accustom to doing the cheapest work possible. It sounds like you are a more savvy customer (rare) and he should have listened more closely to what you expected. Since he has put in the time and learning to acquire his license, he probably knows better but may have just assumed that every customer expects the cheapest work possible. At any rate, you seem to know what you want and deserve to get it. Maybe your plumber could recommend a more suitable electrical contractor.

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