I look at a community and say, “What’s the force?”
Ward Cunningham, 62
Principal engineer, AboutUs
WARD CUNNINGHAM relishes personal tendencies most people would hide as flaws. He has a terrible memory. He was a slow reader. “Writing,” he says, “kind of sucks.” But each shortcoming has become a motivation in his longer-term game of revolutionizing computer programming. The most important of all was his aversion to a practice most engineers crave—planning.
“Throw away the plan,” he says. “The plan will be wrong. Planning impedes learning, because with most computer projects, about halfway through, you realize what you should have done. So let’s just not be stupid. Let’s expect to learn.
“I’m actually a lousy learner,” he adds. “But I just didn’t stop.”
Cunningham’s make-it-up-as-you-go ethos has produced some of the most important breakthroughs in computing in the past two decades, ranging from “design patterns” (a sort of “good habits” method of programming methodology inspired by Christopher Alexander’s architectural treatise, A Pattern Language) to the wiki, the foundation for such participatory databases as Wikipedia. Now the principal engineer for AboutUs.org, the world’s largest wiki for websites, Cunningham also has a new side gig as the first “Nike Open Data Fellow.” He splits his time between the Beaverton campus and Wieden & Kennedy’s Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE). The agenda: taking Nike’s growing open-source database of sustainable materials and practices and making it participatory. “It’s daring,” he says of the new job, “in the sense that they don’t have a clear idea of what I’m going to give them.”
In the modest home he’s shared with his wife and two sons in Garden Home since arriving to work as principal engineer at Tektronix in the late ’70s, Cunningham’s many computers are actually outnumbered by inventions: a home temperature and humidity monitoring system and a range of kinetic sculptures he can set into motion with his iPhone, what he calls “one-day projects,” crudely built from hobby-shop parts but often driven by the latest in web technologies. Variously describing them as “ways of seeing” or like the exercises of “playing piano,” they are important to his thinking because they are not his job.
“I think of myself as an artist when I want to free myself from the obligation to deliver something,” he says. “I think artists are pretty good at separating what they want from what the customer wants. And with that is mastery. Sometimes you master skills so that you can apply them in a fresh way. I’m always working on mastery of computers. The challenge is to will them into something worth doing. And ‘worth doing’ is artistry.” —Randy Gragg