Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Are Recipes for Novices?

The last post about programmers and chefs reminded me of a point raised in the classic Pragmatic Progammers' presentation Herding Racehorses, Racing Sheep:

a recipe card vs closeup of Unix Magic poster

Instructions that are appropriate for a novice may be totally inappropriate for an expert. This is something I touched on a while back in Level 5 Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry. As James Bach said:

A maturity model is basically a gang of best practices hooked on crystal meth. In my maturity model of the industry, promoting a maturity model is mere level 2 behavior. By level 3, we outgrow it.

However, I do think Bach's views on this issue are unnecessarily black and white. The idea that a recipe (eg, a best practice, a methodology, or a maturity model) is completely worthless is just as wrongheaded as the idea that everything should be based on a strict recipe. In other words, even an expert chef may occasionally find it helpful to refer to a recipe card.

There's no reason these two models can't coexist. You should always start with the common denominator recipe, of course, but you may want to provide some alternative guidelines and ideas for those cooks who have outgrown traditional recipes, too. The point is to avoid an onerous, religious one-methodology-fits-all view of the world.

The image of the UNIX wizard used in Andy's presentation is striking. I researched the image and found this bit of history at

The classic UNIX magic poster by Overacre was distributed at past USENIX conferences and featured a white bearded wizard with UNIX related things around him, for example a spool of thread, a black cat, a boot, a fork, pipes, buckets, a number of containers, labelled with things like tar, null, awk, uucp. There is even a 'C' container, and a partially obscured and broken 'B' container.The wizard is pouring mysterious liquids into a giant shell. Subsequent posters in the series included UNIX wars and UNIX views.

I can't find images of the other two posters, unfortunately, but you can see more of Gary Overacre's amazing art at his website.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: