The death of the master builder

Atul Gawande expanded a great piece in the New Yorker from 2007 into The Checklist Manifesto, a short, compelling read about how a simple tool can help humans tackle complexity.

Most of the book explores reducing human error in medicine (spoiler: good check­lists prevent mistakes). But Gawande includes a fasci­nating chapter on the construc­tion industry where he writes:

For most of modern histo­ry… the dominant way people put up build­ings was by… hiring Master Builders who designed them, engineered them, and oversaw construc­tion from start to finish, portico to plumb­ing. Master Builders built Notre Dame, St. Peter’s Basil­ica, and the United States Capitol build­ing. But by the middle of the twentieth century the Master Builders were dead and gone. The variety and sophis­ti­ca­tion of advance­ments in every stage of the construc­tion process had overwhelmed the abili­ties of any individual to master them.

The solution? A combi­na­tion of delega­tion, commu­ni­ca­tion, and checklists.

I see many paral­lels to the computing indus­try. Thirty years ago, Steve Wozniak designed and built a complete computer by hand, the now-legendary Apple I. Today, I carry a computer many orders of magni­tude more complex than the Apple I in my pocket: the iPhone. There’s no one person who can under­stand every single compo­nent of the iPhone and how they work together, let alone assemble one from scratch.

Our solution in both hardware and software is abstrac­tion. Different special­ists and compa­nies handle different compo­nents, and agree on inter­faces between those compo­nents, much like the plumbers and electri­cians and HVAC special­ists collab­o­rate on a skyscraper.

In software, abstrac­tions have evolved at the same speed as the under­lying complex­ity, so that appli­ca­tions like the webserver Nginx and the game Minecraft can still be largely written by one person. The tools just keep improving.

The Apple iPhone SDK is a great example of an excep­tional tool: for (almost) no cost, Apple offers devel­opers a complete coding environ­ment, UI compo­nents to make beautiful inter­faces, a distri­b­u­tion channel, and payment process­ing. It’s never been easier for a team of one or two people to make great software that reaches a large audience.

Moreover, program­mers have created many varieties of automated check­lists to fight against increased complex­ity, from unit tests to full functional tests that click on buttons within an app.

Without such tools the age of the programmer “master builder” would have ended long ago. I’m curious if we’ll ever reach a point where one or two people can no longer create meaning­fully useful applications.

The Checklist Manifesto can be found at Amazon and elsewhere.

Great reads: Uncommon Carriers

After living in New York for a year and a half, I miss San Francis­co’s excel­lent used bookstores. I feel lucky to work just half a block from The Strand, but there’s something about a small bookstore’s curated selec­tion of used books that makes browsing more fun.

I was working in SF last week when I happened into Aardvark Books one night after dinner. Aardvark boasts a great “re­cent arrival­s” section, just a few shelves long but brimming with excel­lent, inexpen­sive reads. I randomly picked up a hardcover copy of John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers, based mostly on its excel­lent cover art and a vague recol­lec­tion of having read some of his work in theNew Yorker. (It helped that some bookstore employee wrote in pencil on the first page, “Pretty good!”)

It was a lucky find. Uncommon Carriers explores freight trans­port and the people who work Ameri­ca’s trucks, barges, ships, planes, and trains, day and night. This might sound boring at first glance, but McPhee’s writing is strangely hypnotic and enthralling.

One piece in particular, Out in the Sort, kept me up late last night. The piece begins with a detailed descrip­tion of a lobster-catching opera­tion in Newfound­land, and uses the lobster compa­ny’s trans­port needs as a segue into a decon­struc­tion of how UPS operates. Describing their world­wide hub in Louisville, Kentucky, McPhee writes:

This labyrinth, which outthinks the people who employ it, is something like the interior of the computers that run it. Like printed circuitry, seven great loops, each a thousand feet around, are super­posed at right angles above other loops… Unending sequences of letters and small packages zip around these loops, while the larger packages follow one another on the belts, each package tailgating the one in front of it but electron­i­cally forbidden to touch it… Collec­tively, the loops are like the circuits in the mother­boards among the inter­face cards of a central processing unit wherein whole packages seeking specific airplanes are ones and zeroes moving through the chips.

There’s too much to glean from the piece (and from the book) for a short blog post, but I’ll pick a few tidbits. We learn that UPS employs college students to deal with “ex­cep­tion­s”—­pack­ages that require human inter­ven­tion. When the company experi­enced diffi­culty hiring enough students, it founded and endowed a college of its own, Metropolitan College, in concert with the Univer­sity of Louisville and other local schools. UPS employees also service Toshiba laptops on-site, and keep the largest supply of Bentley parts in the world. McPhee’s great writing and sense of humor keep everything interesting.

There are hundreds of other fasci­nating details. If you have a New Yorker subscrip­tion, you can read Out in the Sort on If not, I managed to find a copy online, which you can download from Mediafire while it lasts. Either way, if this sounds at all inter­esting to you, you should find a copy of Uncommon Carriers. I know I’ll be looking for more McPhee titles next time I hit a used bookstore.