Response to: Quality vs Quantity and the Ceramic Art Students

I’ve seen the following snippet copied and pasted quite a few times on Hacker News:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.


Of all of the Hacker News comments that I’ve seen that quoted it: They’re attacks against others who claim that you should consider quality when developing software. The problem I have with the claim and the quote is that it completely misses the point. The context of the quote involves unskilled learners that are trying to build an understanding and get practical knowledge for the subject. Within that context, quantity has a lot of value. The students are developing hands-on learning, building muscle control/memory, and are applying their knowledge.

Another issue I have with the quote is that it never states what this quality was. Was it still at the student level? Was it sellable?  Also, the quote doesn’t account for: What did the students learn? What would they do differently? The goals of education are different from the goals outside of education.

As a professional software engineer, you are paid to produce professional quality software. Completing tasks to show that you completed task demonstrates that you can close tickets. It produces no evidence that you can deliver quality software. That’s the same with any engineer. Build 20 bridges, in which a couple fall, you’re going to be considered to be a bad bridge engineer. Also, all your previous work is going to be put in question.

I realize that the knee-jerk response to the previous statement is: “But Steven! Over engineering is bad, the business is going to fail because it can’t deliver/you can’t deliver like that/you have to have the experience to produce stuff and that comes from quantity.”  To address those see:

  1. Business is going to fail: There was poor planning and over promising done here many times over. Blaming the tech team for over-promising is trying to pass the blame along. Software takes time, we’ve got decades of experiences to illustrate this. If quantity were the ultimate winner, we wouldn’t have unrealistic deadlines.
  2. You can’t deliver like that: You can. You have to start with quality early, do the appropriate planning, and write software in a way where you can reuse existing code. Code reuse of quality code gives exponential returns. Sloppy code gives exponentially losses. You can’t turn around quality code later after most of the code is based on sloppy, unreliable, and untrusted code.
  3. You have to have the experience to produce stuff, and that comes from quantity: That statement is a bit of a strawman. Write the software, test it, and ship the code. Just don’t try to ship everything and then go back to try to rewrite everything because you didn’t do your due diligence the first time. Also, I never made the statement claiming there was no forgiveness for misunderstandings before. When you go back, and you went with quality first, the reason you went back to the code from before is that you realize that there was a misunderstanding. (Not because you just wanted to finish it early). The extra benefit is that you learned something.