Sunday, November 23, 2008

Software Discipline Tribalism

Unfortunately, people seem rarely able to stop at a reasoned preference -- e.g., "I like X, since X may offer better outcomes than Y" ... and too often end up, at least whenever group persuasion is involved, somewhere more dramatic, personal, extreme, and narrow -- e.g., "I'm the X kind of person who rebels against Y, since Y can offer worse outcomes."

This is as true in cultures of software development as anywhere else.

While many people have been guilty of this unproductive shift in attitudes, it seems many of the Agile development, dynamic languages, small-tools/small-process/small-companies crowd has long since fallen prey to it.

To be sure, there was much temptation to rebel.

At the start of the decade, proprietary Unix was strong; many processes came with expensive consultants, training, books, and tools ... and overwhelmed the projects they were meant to guide; many tools were expensive and proprietary. Web services were coming onto the scene and large players, with licenses and consulting hours to sell, created specs that were unwieldy for the small, agile, and less-deep-pocketed.

When the post-dot-com nuclear winter set in, small companies had no money to pay for any of that, and we got LAMP, Agile, TDD, REST, etc. Opposition to OO, which had been strong in many quarters, suddenly faded as OO was no longer identified (rightly or not) with certain problematic processes. Ironically, many new OO language fans had been ignoring the lightweight, free (speech and beer) processes that some OO advocates had been producing for years.

These have all proven to be useful tools and techniques and have created whole companies and enormous value ... but somewhere along the line, instead of being in favor of these tools and techniques because in some cases they produced better outcomes, either the leaders or the converts started thinking they were the rebels against anything enterprise, strongly typed, thoroughly analyzed, designed and well tooled.

This shift in attitudes does not help the industry ... nor even the clever consultants who lead the charge, deprecating last year's trend for a new one which they just happen to have written a book about.

We desperately need a broader perspective that integrates all of these pieces. There are things manually-written tests just won't do -- tools like Pex can help immensely, even if (or because... )they are from a big company.

Analysis and design are not bad words, while Agile can get dangerously close to simply surrendering to the pounding waves of change (and laughing at goals all the way to the bank) rather than building against the tide, and trying manage to a real outcome on a real budget.

Static languages can get hideously verbose for cases with functor-like behavior (Java and C# [pre-3.0], I'm looking at you). At the same time, go talk to some ActionScript developers -- who have had dynamic and functional for years -- and you'll see an amazing appreciation for the optional strict typing and interfaces in AS3.

REST is great, but in playing at dynamic, it turns out to be rather like C -- it's as dynamic as the strings you pipe into the compiler, and no more. Absent proper metadata, it cannot reflect and self-bind, so it sacrifices features that dynamic language developers love in their day-to-day coding.

Ironically, most of the critical elements of this "movement" -- along with open source -- are being subsumed into the big enterprise software companies at a prodigious pace. Sun owns MySQL and halfway owns JRuby; Java servers may serve more Rails apps than Mongrel/Ebb/Thin/etc. soon, Microsoft is all over TDD, IronRuby, IronPython...

I suppose the sort of tribalizing we see here is at least partly inevitable in any field. But it would serve the entire industry if that "part" could be made as small as reasonably possible. As a young industry with a poor track record and few rules, we ought to be more interested in better software outcomes than in being rebellious.

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