Published on 30 December 2014
Up until this morning, I had been mumbling about those concerns mostly to myself, and to some colleagues and friends. Then I read this article and I felt like I had to do something. This really is a good read, if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend adding it to your reading list or Instapaper or whatsonot right away. The article, A generation lost in the Bazaar, talks about Unix and how the lack of overall design or “bazaar” mentality (depicted in The Cathedral and the Bazaar) have made it extremely hard to get anything done without digging through a jungle of libraries that kind of repeat functionality, contain copy-pasted code, or depend on libraries that they perhaps don’t need at all.
Incidentally, I just come back from a trip to Morocco, and I’ve been to the Souk in Marrakesh. Some of the Souks are extremely tourist-oriented: everyone tries to sell you their stuff (which is colorful and shiny) – and every few stalls or so you find about the same things.
"What's bower?" "A package manager, install it with npm." "What's npm?" "A package manager, you can install it with brew" "What's brew?" …
— Stefan Baumgartner (@ddprrt) November 5, 2014
My experience has been that the super-fast code and refresh cycles make for a very gratifying experience: change something small, see the result right away. When you’re more on the pragmatic side of things, this is very useful and you can get something up and running quite quickly. There is, however, a price to pay to the approach of coding through instant gratification.
First of all, there’s the the trap of getting caught up in speed. It is one thing to get to a reasonable functionality in a short time, and another one entirely to build a piece of software that can be maintained or worked with in a team over an extended period of time. It is all too tempting to leave working code as-is, withouth refining it or improving it in a timely fashion. And before you know it, someone else has picked it up, or you yourself have picked it up again, copy-pasted it (god forbid!) or increased its complexity where there would have been a simpler solution would you have given it some more thought.
The second issue with “the speed” is that there are no natural pauses to stop and have a chance to think about the code that has just been written down frantically. Yes, interruptions are annoying and counter-productive – but I believe that correctly timed interruptions are very useful as well, because they give us programmers a chance to step away from the keyboard and use our brain for a minute. Of course, we are also using our brains while we write code – but give it enough time and practice, and much of the code or algorithms one writes down in our profession are written out of habit rather than out of carefully consideration.
Some of my best code has been “written” away from the keyboard, on a piece of paper or on a whiteboard, and only after iterating it for some time did I take the step to input it in the computer. I wish it always was like this. Much of my days are spent in front of the computer rather than away from it, even when I sense that what I’m doing is not the most productive thing there is. There is an expectation, I think, that “computer people” should sit in front of a computer. And if they don’t, it must be because they are not working. I don’t know to which extent this holds true in the creative working places à la Googleplex, but it certainly is the case in many offices around the world. The culture, it would seem, goes in favour of encouraging the production of lines of code over the production of a carefully crafted design.
Lastly, combining a quick iteration cycle with a seemingly infinite amount of libraries makes for a very dangerous mix. Everything is just one
Let’s go 15 years back in time. In the article that triggered me to write this entry, Poul-Henning Kamp makes the argument that the dot-com boom led many people without a formal CS education to get in and “just hack it”, and that the lack of formal education is in part at the origin of the lack of quality we see in software today. To be honest, I’m unsure about the formal education bit – I like to believe that with enough self-discipline, drive, and humility, it is possible to get good at it as well. But I would agree that the lack of perspective provided by a formal education in combination with everyone running around and screaming “just hack it” is not necessarily a recipe for success.
Fast-forward to today and to our jungle of half-dead Javscript libraries (I don’t want to call it zombie army just jet but we probably are not too far away). What happened? We are now in another
bubble period with great opportunity for people in the IT industry, and we want to have as many people as possible join the party! Everyone should code. And we have made it so easy! Create a GitHub account, watch some of the many, many tutorials out there, and get going! Yay!
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