Artists Ship, or the Best is the Enemy of the Good


Artists Ship

I try not to just link to other articles in this blog, but I was extremely taken with Paul Graham’s blog post The other half of “artists ship”, because it rang so true to my experience as both a scientist and software engineer. The expression is attributed to Steve Jobs in Steve Levy’s book on the Mac Insanely Great, which I’ve cut and pasted from Alex Golub’s blog:

… REAL ARTISTS SHIP … One’s creation, quite simply, did not exist as art if it was not out there, available for consumption, doing well. Was [Douglas] Engelbart an artist? A prima donna — he didn’t ship. What were the wizards of PARC? Haughty aristocrats — they didn’t ship. The final step of an artist — the single validating act — was getting his or her work into boxes … to make a difference in the world and a dent in the universe, you had to ship.

A while back, I commented on the artist-programmer connection in the blog post Industrialist or Auteur?, which pinned the blame on “obsessive pedantry”.

The Best is the Enemy of the Good

Two centuries and a decade earlier in 1772, Voltaire got to the bottom of why many of us have trouble finishing projects, stating Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. (roughly “the best [better/perfect] is the enemy of the good”).

I remember seeing this first in the introduction to Barwise and Perry’s book Situations and Attitudes, where they thank their editor for reminding them that among the good qualities a book may possess, existence is a quite important one. Barwise and Perry copped to falling prey to the temptation to keep tweaking something to make it better while never delivering anything. That’s one reason why deadlines help, be they real (this morning’s NAACL/HLT submission deadline) or imaginary (if I don’t get this blog entry done today, no supper).

Build and Release

If you had to wait for my ultimate NLP API, LingPipe wouldn’t exist. Almost every method in every class could use improvement in everything from unit tests to documentation to efficiency. I have reasonably high standards (as the fans of extreme programming like to say, there are only two quality settings of interest to programmers, great and lives-depend-on-it), but I’m a pushover compared to what even a small (200-400 person, 30 or so of whom were core product coders) company like SpeechWorks required in the way of QA.

At SpeechWorks, I had proposed an API for language segmentation (breaking a document down into spans by language, primarily for European text-to-speech from e-mail apps), which was informed by a long (and good) marketing document and read by no fewer than a dozen commentators, who also read later drafts. The code was written and reviewed by two of us, and we interfaced with the testing group who had to put the code through functional tests on a host of platforms. And then there was release engineering. Oh, and did I mention the documentation department? My first pass at API design was a little too Ph.D.-centric (no, my commentators said, the users wouldn’t want to tune interpolation parameters for character language models at run time — just guess a good value for them, please); LingPipe is what happens when there’s no one from marketing commenting on the API!

If you increase your team size to something like Microsoft (see How MS Builds Software), you won’t even get through the hierarchical build process in the month it took SpeechWorks to roll out software, and then you’ll be waiting on the internationalization team to translate your deathless dialog box prose into dozens of language. Perhaps that’s why Mark Chu-Carroll finds enough to hold his interest working on Google’s builds!

A Dissertation’s Just Practice

The worst case of the not-good-enough problem I’ve seen is in academia. Students somehow try to pack as much as they can into a thesis. I sure did. I had seven chapters outlined, and after five, my advisor (Ewan Klein) told me to stop, I had enough. Of course, some advisors never think their students have done enough work — that’s just the same problem from management’s perspective. My own advice to students was to save their life’s work for the rest of their life — a dissertation’s just practice. As evidence of that, they’re graded mostly on form, not content.

Revise and Resubmit

The Computational Lingusitics journal editorial board faces the same problem. Robert Dale (the editor) found that most authors who were asked to revise and resubmit their paper (that is, not rejected or accepted outright) never got around to it. Robert tracked some of the authors down and they said they simply didn’t have enough time to run all the extra experiments and analyses proposed by reviewers. Robert asked us to rethink the way we came to conclusions, and instead of asking “could this be better?” ask “is it good enough to be interesting?”. I couldn’t agree more.

2 Responses to “Artists Ship, or the Best is the Enemy of the Good”

  1. Peter Turney Says:

    There is some ambiguity in your use of the word “ship”. In the first paragraph, it seems to mean “shipping a product to a client”, but in the second paragraph, it seems to include publishing a book. A quick search on Google Scholar shows that Douglas Engelbart did indeed publish a respectable amount. I followed the link to Industrialist or Auteur? and I’m still not sure what the message is. I think there is a latent message that the artist/industrialist, academic/commercial, publish/ship, and optimizing/satisficing dimensions are parallel, but I don’t agree.

  2. lingpipe Says:

    Peter’s parsing of the first three analogies is how I read Steve Jobs’s use of “ship”: “artist/industrialist, ademic/commercial, publish/ship.” I took his point to be that you’re not an artist (industrialist) until you publish (ship). And that requires one to satisfice rather than optimize (assuming we can never reach perfection).

    Re-reading the industrialist or auteur post, I’m wondering if I misquoted. My takeaway from the New Yorker article was that Disney thought of himself as a perfectionist, and that made him an “artist”, to be contrasted with the “industrialist”, who released any old thing. Of course, Disney shipped a lot of product, so I don’t know where that leaves him.

    I should’ve looked before quoting. I didn’t know who Douglas Engelbart is, but now I see he’s the inventor of the (computer) mouse, so I see where the confusion arises. As an academic, your product is your papers, so he shipped as an academic. SRI simply failed to build a mouse into computers. I spent four years at Bell Labs and know the scientists don’t control the releases! Not that I ever built anything as cool as the mouse, the photo of 1967 version of which on Englebart’s Wikipedia page is like something out of Make magazine. So shame on the author for taking him to task (and on me for quoting blindly).

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