I didn’t think that before I met him, as brief of an encounter as it was. After all, he’s the author of Refactoring, Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture and UML Distilled. He’s helped set the course of XP/Agile and regularly refers to my personal software hero, Kent Beck, as just “Kent”. Martin Fowler is respected, experienced and his name is dropped in regular software parlance to justify, or condemn, a given practice.

But – he’s still a regular guy. A software engineer. A developer. A coder. Here is why.

I attended a “Friends and Family” ThoughtWorks event at their headquarters in Chicago. The ThoughtWorks office is on the 25th floor of the ever imposing Aon Center building, which as some know, is a twin to the now gone World Trade Center buildings in New York City.

Their office space is designed to do two things: 1) induce violent jealousy of cube workers, and 2) show that they are hip coders and like Ruby. Since ThoughtWorks is a consultancy no one is ever there though. And if they are, you wonder what is wrong with them. However, they get to wear Puma’s, hoodies and generally expensive (a.k.a. designer) jeans. I wear “slacks”.

I attended a TW event before, so I had a general idea of the flow. For instance, I knew they would have some pizza so I didn’t cram my lunch in before I left. I also knew there would be mingling which I was ready for this time. I expected to schmooze with some developers at the CME or some random interactive shop.  Instead, there he was – Martin Fowler – just walking along. So I engaged him and it went something like this:

Me: “I love your books. I live by Refactoring.” (I’m a fanboy.)
Fowler: “Thank you.” (What else could he say?)
Me: “What are you thinking about nowadays? Like today? What’s on your mind?”
Fowler: “Well, really, I have a problem with my website and I need to fix it. But I have to be here as well. It’s small, but it’s bothering me.”
Me: “Your website?”
Fowler: “Yes, there is a style issue.”
Me: “On your site?”
Fowler: “It’s minor, probably just CSS really.”
Me: “But annoying?”
Fowler: “Frustrating, yes.”
Me: “So, let me get this right, Martin Fowler is concerned about CSS on his website. So, in that way you’re like all the other software engineers here leaving some problem behind at their desk to be here…”
Fowler: “Very much, except, I don’t do any real work besides writing and talking.”

And so it came and went.  I didn’t occupy him much longer with additional inane questions and politely excused myself so he could do his expected mingling with the crowd.  After all, even though there was a panel, most people were probably there for him.  Like me.  I paid 8 bucks to take a cab across the Loop to see him and I hoped that shaking his hand would impart some type of wisdom via osmosis to my software skills.

So, he’s just a regular guy.  I’m probably not that different in circumstances than him when he really started rolling in the 90’s.  He has great ideas and the ability to make complex problems simple.  But, at the end of the day, little things like CSS still weigh on him; a web page not displaying correctly or a function not being optimum.  Stuff that software engineers are concerned about.  Like me and like him.