Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Eloquence Is "Obsolete". We're Hurting. That's Redundant.

Code is meant to be read, understood, maintained and reused by humans, and incidentally to be executed by a computer. Doing the second correctly is far, far less difficult than doing the first well. Innovation is utterly meaningless without effective communication, and that is at least as true within a team as between it and a larger organisation, or between a company and its (current and potential) customers.

The degree to which a class framework, or any other tool, helps make communication more effective with less effort and error should be the main determinant of its success. It isn't, for at least two reasons. One, of course, is marketing; we as a society have been conditioned not to contest the assertion that the better-marketed product is in fact superior. In so doing, we abdicate a large degree of our affirmative participation in the evolution of, and the control over society at the small (team/company), mid-level (industry) and wider levels. We, as individuals or organisations, devolve from customers (participants in a conversation, known as a 'market', in which we have choices) into consumers (gullets whose purpose is to gulp endless products and crap cash).

More worrying is that effective, literate communication has gone completely out of fashion. Whether or not you blame that on the systematic laying waste of the educational system over the last thirty years, it's increasingly nonsensical to argue with the effect. People are less able to build understanding and consensus because they do not have the language skills to communicate effectively, and have been conditioned not to view that as a critical problem urgently requiring remediation. Oh, you'll hear politicians bloviating about how "the workforce needs to improve" or "education most be 'reformed' for the new era", but that's too often a device used to mollify public opinion, make it appear as though the politicians are Doing Something effective, and especially to preempt any truly effective public discussion leading to consensus that might effect real socioeconomic improvement rather than the "Hope and Change"™ genuine imitation snake oil that's been peddled for far too long.

Back on the subject of developers and tools, I would thus argue that what tools you use are a secondary concern; if you don't understand code that's been written, by others or (especially) by you, then a) that code can't be trusted to do anything in particular because b) someone didn't do their job.

Your job, as a developer, is to communicate your intent and understanding of the solution to a specifically-defined problem in such a way that the solution, and the problem, can be readily undestood, used, and built upon by any competent, literate individual or team following you. (Again, explicitly including yourself; how many times have you picked up code from a year or a decade before, that you have some degree of pride in, only to be horrified at how opaque, convoluted or incomprehensible it is?) Some computer languages make that effective communication easier and more reliable than others; some choose to limit their broad generality to focus on addressing a narrower range of applications more effectively and expressively.

That has, of course, now progressed to the logical extreme of domain-specific languages. General-purpose languages such as C, Ruby or Python try to be everything but the kitchen sink, and too often succeed; this makes accomplishing any specific task effectively and eloquently incrementally more difficult. DSLs are definitions of how a particular type of problem (or even an individual problem, singular) can be conceptualised and implemented; a program written in a proper DSL should concisely, eloquently and provably solve the problem for which it was written. This has sparked something of a continuing revolution in the craft and industry of software development; general-purpose languages arose, in part, because writing languages that are both precise enough to be understood by computers and expressive enough to be used by humans is hard; it still is. DSLs take advantage of the greatly-evolved capabilities of tools which exist to create other tools, compared with their predecessors of just a few years ago.

But the language you use to develop a program is completely irrelevant if you can't communicate with other people about your program and the ecosystem surrounding and supporting it. If half the industry reads and writes on a fifth-grade level, then we're literally unable to improve as we should.

To paraphrase the television-show title, it doesn't matter if we're smarter than a fifth-grader if that's the level at which we communicate. Improving that requires urgent, sustained and concerted attention — not only to make us better software developers, but to make the larger world in which we live a better place. Let's start by at least being able to communicate and discuss what "better" means. That in itself would be an epochal improvement, saving entire societies from becoming obsolete.

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