Purist vs. Pragmatist

There’s often more than one way to solve a problem. Engineers tend to be pretty opinionated about solutions, too. Whenever I see disagreements in design, I typically notice two competing stances: the pragmatist and the purist. Identifying these approaches helps to understand how others think and fosters healthier team collaboration.

purist is one who focuses primarily on the correctness of a solution. They typically seek a systematic, comprehensive, and verifiable design. A pragmatist, however, favors practical, expedient solutions. They are okay with a solution so long as it works.

The table below gives some perspective on how these two perspectives may differ:

Purist Pragmatist
Focus more on what is correct Focus more on what is expedient
Spend more effort on design and the “big picture” Spend more effort on implementation
Very picky in code review Less picky in code review
Interested more in white-box code quality Interested more in black-box code quality
Favors strong design patterns, even if they are complicated Favors simpler design patterns, even if they have less-than-desirable consequences
Prefers to redesign than to hack Prefers to hack than to redesign
Good at handling long-term problems Good at handling short-term problems
Views software development as an art as well as an engineering practice Views development primarily as an engineering practice
Aligns well with academia Aligns well with business
In test automation, better for framework development In test automation, better for test case development

These descriptions are not absolute: many people fall somewhere between the poles of purist and pragmatist. However, most people tend to exhibit stronger tendencies in one direction.

Personally, I tend to be a purist. If I need to get a job done, I feel shameful if I cannot afford the time to do it fully properly. However, I often find myself working with pragmatists. That’s not a bad thing – I recognize the value in each perspective. There is much to learn from both sides!

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