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Sat 02 July 2022

Book Review: Apprenticeship Patterns

Posted by Simon Larsén in Reviews   

Apprenticeship Patterns: Guidance for the Aspiring Software Craftsman is fundamentally a book about lifelong learning. It is about treating software engineering as a craft you may never master; in fact it may never have been mastered before. Perhaps it simply cannot be mastered in the traditional sense of the word. But that doesn't mean that we should not aspire to master it, that we should not embark on The Long Road. So how can a book help with that?

Apprenticeship Patterns: Guidance for the Aspiring Software Craftsman
by Dave Hoover, Adewale Oshineye
Released October 2009
Publisher(s): O'Reilly Media, Inc.
ISBN: 9780596518387

The book in a nutshell

The core tenet of the book is that software engineering is a craft. A craft in the same sense that blacksmithing is, or carpentry, or the construction of musical instruments. The authors provide a concise reasoning for why this is so.

Software engineering is a craft precisely because we don't understand it well enough to make it a codified discipline like science or engineering.

One can agree or disagree with this statement, but it is hard to argue against the notion that software engineering is something that requires a high degree of skill. That's not skill as in technical proficiency, although that is part of it. It's skill as in everything that encompasses a successful software engineer, of which technical proficiency is important but far from being the skill in it's own right.

As the title suggests, Apprenticeship Patterns is comprised of a series of patterns. These are meant to help you hone your skill as a software craftsman. Each pattern is composed of four parts:

  • Context: A generalized context to put the pattern in perspective.
  • Problem: A concrete problem statement.
  • Solution: One or more suggestions for solving or alleviating the problem.
  • Action: A concrete exercise to practice the solution.

The patterns are really contextual habits; given a situation X it is appropriate to do Y. A (perhaps the) core pattern is The Long Road, which boils down to the fact that mastering a craft is a lifelong process. It challenges the notion that the quickest way to success as measured in notoriety or material wealth is what one should aspire for. The solution is a lengthy affair, but it importantly suggests that climbing the corporate ladder through quick promotions or similar easily takes you away from the actual crafting of software, thus diverting you from The Long Road. You should be prepared to work as a developer for many years to come. Many of the other patterns of the book complement The Long Road, such as Stay In The Trenches which specifically deals with the problem of success being rewarded with promotions.

Another pattern that struck home with me is Record What You Learn. Quite unsurprisingly, it simply suggests that one should keep a record of the things you have learned and plan to learn in the future. This book review is in fact a direct application of that pattern.

There are many, many more patterns in the book. Some of my favorite ones include:

  • Be The Worst: Place yourself in situations where you are surrounded by craftsmen that are more skilled than you in some area, and that you can learn from. Avoid becoming complacent.
  • Share What You Learn: Put your learning experiences out in the open, for anyone to find.
  • Kindred Spirits: Surround yourself with others passionate to learn the things you wish to dive into.
  • Use The Source: Read open source code. A lot.
  • Read Constantly: Read books. A lot.

I'm not going to list all the patterns that resonated with me, and I can't even do these few ones justice with just this brief explanation of them. You really need to read the book with each context, problem, solution and action for the respective patterns to get the full picture.

What I liked

This book is a very easy read. I like to have at least one soft book to read when my mind wanders too much for me to take in a technical book, and Apprenticeship Patterns perfectly fits that bill. It took me a couple of weeks with a few pages a night to get through it. It's easy to pick it up, read about a pattern or two, and then put it down. It's well organized and easy to refer back to after completion. The patterns are presented with just enough context to make them understandable, yet the authors do not dwell on things for too long. It is a concise book that is still easy to comprehend.

I also found that it is a highly inspirational book, and approaching software engineering as a craft really speaks to me. Many of the patterns of this book are quite obvious to me and I practice several of them already, yet there are many patterns I think I should practice that I don't. Record What You Learn is the perfect example. I've been thinking for years that I should do so, but never really got around to doing it other than a sporadic blog post once or twice a year. After reading the book, I have newfound motivation to apply many of the patterns, as this book review is tangible evidence of. In the future, I intend to always finish up a book with a book review. Hopefully I will improve in writing them with time, as I am not all that happy with how this review turned out. But Share What You Learn tells me I should post this anyway, and I really do agree with that.

I also think this is a terrific book to read as a budding software engineer. It is called Apprenticeship Patterns, after all. I wish I would have read it years ago, and I wish I was already practicing many of the patterns. But better late than never, and as I will discuss in the next section there is a reason for me to be somewhat thankful for not reading it earlier.

What I didn't like

While I think this is a good handbook for mastering a craft, I also think the approach is potentially unhealthy if applied without moderation. I have personally struggled a lot with finding a balance between improving my skills as a software and just living a life separate from software engineering. Or computers and technology in general. I found the book truly inspirational, so much so that it prompted be to spend two hours of my Saturday morning writing this book review. To be completely honest, I am still tweaking the aforementioned balance. I would not say that I am struggling anymore, but I cannot deny that it is still a work in progress.


This book struck home with me, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. But that is a recommendation with a caveat, as I don't think this is a book for everyone. It's really all in the title, this book is for the aspiring software craftsman. I don't think you have to approach software engineering as a craft that you devote yourself to, and the authors actually allude to this as well. It's one approach, and it's a great boon to the field that some take it. But for others, working with software can be "just a job", and not their passion. That is fine, a job can be just a means to provide for yourself. And if that's you, then I say skip this book. But if you do have a passion for building great software, I think this is a book you don't want to miss.