Thursday, 24 November 2011

Know when to walk away; know when to run

This started out as a reply to a comment on the LinkedPHPers group on LinkedIn; once I started writing, of course, it quickly grew beyond what was appropriate as a conversationally-inline comment. So I brought it over here. It's something I've been thinking about for a couple of weeks now, so let me get this anvil off my chest.

To R Matthew Songer1: I'd advise adding Ruby on Rails to that list of alternatives. I've been writing PHP for fun and profit since PHP 4 was still a future hope wrapped in hyperbole. Now that we've finally got a (mostly-)decent language in 5.3 for some serious software development, I'm burning out. Part of that burnout is due to what I see in the PHP community, part to geography, and part to other factors that approach "fit for use".

I've recently taken a post as Chief Engineer at a little startup nobody's heard of yet. Our prototype was done in PHP; it got the idea across well enough for our initial investors and customers to bang on our door. So the CEO and I thought, great, we'll find another senior2 PHP guy, write a real app (the prototype doesn't even have testable seams), and we're off.

If I were looking to hire a battalion of deputy junior assistant coders whose main qualification as PHP devs was being able to spell it whilst taking endless trips down the waterfall, I could do that. I was aiming higher: I wanted someone who knew his way around current best practices; who realises that being experienced is no excuse to stop learning aggressively; who understands how to build web apps that can evolve and scale; who looks for the best feasible way to do something instead of just the first one that pops into mind. I especially needed to find someone who was as BDD/TDD-infected as I am, and recognised the value of building tools and automation early (but incrementally) so that we'd be a lean, agile development machine when the rubber really needed to hit the road, a (very) few short weeks from now.

In the States, or in much of Europe, or basically anyplace outside Singapore, I'd probably have a decent chance of finding such a person. Here, not so much. I was especially concerned by the way PHP usage seems to be devolving in these parts. There are lots of folks who think that it's a good idea to reinvent Every. Single. Wheel. themselves, without really knowing all that much about what has gone before. Frameworks are a good example; if you aren't intensely aware of how good software, sites and Web apps get built; if you don't even bother with encapsulation or MVC or SOLID or on and on, how can you expect anybody who does know his Craft from a hole in the ground to take you or your "tool" seriously? It might wow the management rubes who proudly admit they don't know squat — but in the world as it is, or at least as it's going to exist in the very near future, those will (continue to) be a vanishing breed even here. Even in a Second World Potemkin village of a city-state where what you are and who you know is far more important in most situations than what you've done and what you know, you're still running a risk that somebody is going to come along who actually gets up in the morning and applies herself or himself to writing better stuff than they wrote yesterday. And, eventually, they're going to wipe the floor with you — either you as an individual or you as a society that remains stubbornly top-down-at-any-cost.3

In contrast, my experience talking with Ruby and Rails people here, even people with absolute minimal experience in Rails, is chalk-and-Friday different. For one illustrative example: one book that more than half the yes-I've-done-a-bit-of-Rails folk I've talked to here is Russ Olsen's Eloquent Ruby (ISBN 978-0-321-58410-6). Your average PHP dev — or C++ dev or Java dev — is fighting the dragons (schedule, complexity, communication, etc.) far too much to get out of fire-drill-coding mode and into writing. If you believe, as I do, that all truly competent software is written as a basis for and means of conversation between humans, and incidentally to be executed by a computer, then you know what I'm driving at here. Knuth's dictum that programming is a creative, literary act is too easily lost when you're just throwing yourself against the wall every day trying to see which of you will break first. (It's very rarely the wall.)

If you write software that can be read and understood, and intelligently expanded on or borrowed from, and your whole view of the omniverse changes. Your stress goes down, your written works' quality goes up, and you enjoy what you do a lot more. Automating away the repeated, detailed work and having a sensible process so you don't give yourself enough rope to shoot yourself in the foot regularly (with apologies to Alan Holub) is the most reliable way yet found to get your project schedule under your control instead of vice versa.

All this does however have one pre-supposition, which I have received numerous complaints on here locally: you and your team must be fully literate and fluent in a shared human language4. The vast majority of software to date seems to be associated with four such: Business Standard English, Russian, Japanese and Chinese. If your team shares a different language at a (near-)native level, with one or more of you having similar skills in the earlier four, you should be able to make do for yourself rather nicely. Having others build on your work, if desired, is going to be a bit more problematic. Poor communication has been at least a strong contributing cause, if not the root cause, of every failed project I have seen in my career. If you can't speak the customer's language effectively enough, with nuance, subtlety and clarity as needed, then your chances of project success are somewhat worse than my chances of winning the next six consecutive Toto jackpots — and I don't plan on buying any tickets.


1. "I am sitting here tossing the options around for a business application, browser based, and trying to decide...PHP, Java, Python, .NET?" (Return)

2. Why insist on a senior guy when they're so rare here (at least the PHP variety)? Because I figure that with a senior dev coming on a month from now, we'd spend roughly half the time between now and our first drop-deadline writing magnificent code, and the other half building infrastructure and process to make building, testing and deploying the magnificent code we write straightforward enough not to distract the team from the creative acts of development. There's not enough time to wipe anybody's backside. (Return)

3. The phrase "at any cost" always reminds me of a company I contracted to back in the late '80s. My boss there had a (large) sign above his desk, "We will pay any price to cut costs." The company eventually paid the ultimate price — bankruptcy. (Return)

4. I'm describing what used to be called "college- or university-level language skills", but as any university teach will readily tell you, the skills exhibited by students have dropped precipitously and measurably in the last three decades or so. (Return)

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