Matthew McCollough: The third wave of artfulness in code

Published 11 Nov 2013

Oh, my f*****g GOD, I was not prepared for this.

Matthew McCollough from GitHub made my day by blowing me away, leaving me tumbled in the hotel lobby for a good while after the keynote ended.

Matthew started his session being the target of the (actually) funny presenter’s jokes. Working at GitHub as he does, they went through his GitHub account as his CV. A fun take, as blank spots in the commit graph instantly showed when Matthew was slacking off. I mean, is the birth of a daughter an excuse for letting a day in the graph go blank?

The presentation that followed was a perfectly composed one, where Matthew piled perfect analogies on top of each other. Comparing early cave man paintings with early code man practices, Matthew nailed the theme of the year - The Arts. Cave men paintings are crude, but fascinating…but why do we find paintings that few artists of today would be proud to call their own interesting? Leading on, using child analogies to illustrate how frameworks, patterns and our tendency to talk about the right way to do things, are more or less the same as the child pointing out that the young kid’s painting is just wrong…the young kid replying that “It is not wrong, it is just new”.

Matthew then talked about sustained creative work and the absurdity of us working as creative machines, expected to adjust our creative machinery to fit a certain clock cycle. Our line of work is indeed a challenging one. Most of us never turn of this creative engine.

At home, Matthew has made a lot of stuff available for his kids to explore, like a bunch of instruments without instructions. He compared the noise his kids make while exploring these instruments with the noise being made by engineers as they try out new techniques.

Matthew told us about him being a smart-ass in school, answering math questions with correct, but not expected answers. He got told that his answers were wrong, when in fact they were correct, but not in the way the teacher expected or wanted. This is not exclusive for school. For Matthew, it repeated itself during a high profile job interview, where “right” was solving a code test by writing code the way the interviewers wanted it. Matthew put down the pen and walked out.

Wash, rinse and repeat.

Matthew gave us more amazing analogies, like how we believe that some of world’s greatest artworks were painted in one perfect stroke, when in fact most of them (Mona Lisa, for instance) was painted over numerous times by DaVinci, who never found his work to become perfect. Why is it that artists can complete their craft over time, leaving us with a final, perfect piece of art, when we are so afraid of making mistakes ourselves.

“I’ve never seen a company giving the biggest bonus to the person that made the most mistakes and told everyone about them.” Indeed.

So, could this be the best keynote I have ever attended? It might as well be, but I think I will have to re-watch it in a while to be able to answer that question. Check out the video and tell me what you think.