Glenn Vanderburg

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Sharp vs. Blunt Instruments
Mon, 13 Jul 2009 (20:55) #
Michael Feathers just put up a blog post on a topic that’s near and dear to my heart: Ending the Era of Patronizing Language Design. I can’t resist chiming in. (This post might be more interesting if I disagreed with him on some point, but I just don’t. I just want to emphasize some of Michael’s points and offer some supporting anecdotes.)

Michael writes, "For years, in the software industry, we’ve made the assumption that some language features are just too powerful for the typical developer—too prone to misuse." I’ve heard that argument many, many times, from people I strongly respect. And for a long time I believed it. For several years after I became enthusiastic about Ruby, I worked in places where most of the developers were typical, average programmers, and I refrained from really pushing Ruby in those environments because I thought Ruby was too powerful for them.

Then, a few years ago, I spent some time in a role where I was doing architectural reviews of IT projects (mostly Java projects). And one day I came to a shocking realization: there’s no way those projects could have been screwed up any worse if they had been written in Ruby.

What was alarming and depressing about those Java projects I was reviewing was not that they were poorly designed. I expected that; design is, after all, difficult. No, the surprising thing was that somehow, against all odds, the developers had managed to wrestle these monstrous designs over the finish line. The sheer dogged determination it took to do so was impressive and horrifying. I would have given up in despair long before.

The experience taught me a valuable lesson:

Weak developers will move heaven and earth to do the wrong thing. You can’t limit the damage they do by locking up the sharp tools. They’ll just swing the blunt tools harder.

I’ve been working full-time in Ruby now for almost four years. Everything I’ve seen while working on Ruby projects confirms what I realized back then, and it matches what Michael wrote about the ethic of responsibility that a powerful language like Ruby fosters. Ruby isn’t a panacea. The weak developers will wreak havoc in Ruby projects as well. But I think Ruby also makes it more difficult to hide from those mistakes without learning something from them. Yes, many Ruby projects have design weaknesses, but the usual standard is better than what I’ve seen in other languages, not worse.

If you want your team to produce great work and take responsibility for their decisions, give them powerful tools.