Zen and the Art of Web Performance

January 24, 2010 10:51 pm | 4 Comments

The Zen Wall

We moved into a teardown 2BR/1BA house in 1993. After two years of infrastructure repairs (heating, plumbing, electrical, doors, windows) we started work on the yard. One of the jobs that I enjoyed most was building a dry stone retaining wall in the front yard. Here are the before and after pictures:



During this multi-month project my neighbor, Les Kaye, came by to survey the progress. Les is the Zen monk at the Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center and author of Zen at Work. He made a comment about my rock wall that I’ve always remembered – “very Zen-like”.

I’m not a Zen student, but I have read a few Zen books (Les’ Zen at Work, Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu, the Tao of Leadership by John Heider, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig). I think Les’ comment had to do with the way I was building the wall. I wasn’t using any tools, and didn’t have any drawings or plans. I had never built a dry stone wall before. I read a few articles on dry stone construction, got advice from the folks where I bought the stone, and then just started.

I had a sense of where the wall should go in the yard, and where the steps should go in the wall. I laid the base, and then worked up from there. I would try a few stones for a given spot until I found the right one. I could recognize if a stone worked, and if it didn’t. Sometimes I’d have to backtrack a bit to undo some bad stones and start over where the good stones left off. In the end, the wall turned out great. It’s now covered with moss, overhung by rosemary, and filled with lizards that come out to sunbathe in the summer.

Les’ comment that my rock wall project was Zen-like had to do with this marriage of an artistic sense of what was right with the technical process of building a wall. The separation of art and technology, and the need to rejoin them, is a major theme in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that’s been on my mind lately.

Art & Technology

The way I approached this rock wall project seems a bit ill-conceived. You certainly wouldn’t run a software development project this way. A well-planned project would make use of good tools. It would have a detailed plan. It would include people that had experience, at least in a consulting role. And it would have regular milestones that could be objectively measured and quantified. But these (technical, mechanical, objective) process parts aren’t sufficient to ensure success. A sense of craftsmanship is also needed.

I’ve had the experience where I’ve hired a home contractor who had all the right tools and experience, and was equipped with an agreed upon plan, but at the end of the job I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome. The end result didn’t fit. It was out of proportion – something we couldn’t have noticed looking at the plans. Or it didn’t fit the flow of the people living in the house – the light switches were placed in an awkward location in a counter intuitive order, or the door swung out too far and blocked traffic.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have plans and tools, and metrics and experts. And I’m certainly not running down home contractors – many great contractors have worked on our house. I’m saying that the high quality results I’ve experienced resulted when technical skills were combined with a sense of what was “right” in the work. Robert Pirsig says it this way in describing a wall built in Korea:

[The wall] was beautiful, but not because of any masterful intellectual planning or any scientific supervision of the job, or any added expenditures to “stylize” it. It was beautiful because the people who worked on it had a way of looking at things that made them do it right unselfconsciously. They didn’t separate themselves from the work in such a way as to do it wrong. […] In each case there’s a beautiful way of doing it and an ugly way of doing it, and in arriving at the high-quality, beautiful way of doing it, both an ability to see what “looks good” and an ability to understand the underlying methods to arrive at that “good” are needed.1

Beautiful Web Performance

My work on web performance has helped identify the “underlying methods” for arriving at a quality result in terms of a fast web site. To make it easy to find out which methods to use, I created YSlow and encouraged the team that launched Page Speed. But these tools don’t preclude the need to understand the techniques behind web performance. I was reminded of this today by an email I received through my web site. The emailer said he had installed YSlow and saw what needed to be fixed, and asked for the step-by-step instructions on how to accomplish these changes.

Without any details of his web site, HTML & JavaScript frameworks, etc. it was impossible to generate step-by-step instructions. But even if it was possible, if he had followed someone else’s list of instructions he would be separated from the work and miss the experience of the “beautiful way of doing it”. Optimizing a web site isn’t something that can be undertaken without understanding what you’re changing and why. Doing so inevitably introduces complexity, confusion, and loss of quality. It would be better for him to develop that understanding, or if that’s not possible to use a framework that incorporates performance best practices.

In addition to an understanding of the underlying methods, the ability to see what “looks good” is also needed, as Pirsig says. When it comes to web performance, it’s pretty easy to distinguish the good from the bad. How does your site feel when you use it? How about when you use it from home or from a mobile device? WebPagetest.org helps by offering multiple ways to visualize the performance of your web site, and to compare that to other sites.

Over time, combining an understanding of the underlying methods for web performance with an ability to see what “looks good” leads to doing quality development “unselfconsciously”. It becomes second nature, and permeates every site you build. As I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I was amazed at how well it spoke to the work I do, even more amazing given that it was published in 1974. The search for Quality is timeless. I recommend you read ZMM, or read it again as the case may be. Raising the level of quality in your work will benefit your users and your employer, but it’ll benefit you most of all.

1Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance An Inquiry Into Values (P.S.) (New York, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005) p. 298.

4 Responses to Zen and the Art of Web Performance

  1. I think we can say this about all web development because most of the people think that they use one or two or three languages / technologies that are visible on the surface, but there are tons of things that actually happen deep under the skin between servers and browsers.

    This perceptional disconnect is what makes people ask for step-by-step instructions and not have ability to really see the full picture. Same disconnect is what made web so popular though ;)

  2. Your wall is nice-to-look-at art, and it functions nicely too =) There is certainly an art to constructing web pages such that they’re easier to optimize and more joyful to work on. Anyone who loves to tinker appreciates this.

  3. +1 for step-by-step, so much of what we do has drawbacks and just blindly following a “prescription” has side-effects, including crippled developments process, general developer’s discontent, regression, (page) weight gain, inability to operate heavy machinery, headache, nausea, depression, nervousness, loss of scalp hair… :)

  4. Steve,
    I am the guy who brought Chinese version to the O’Reilly Velocity China 2010 conference.
    Revisit this post again, I learn more. Thx for always bring fresh innovative ideas, keep fighting :)