April 19, 2012

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Enough With The Movements! Movements Are Stupid.

I've been around the block a few times as a software developer, and as such I've witnessed several movements in the industry come and go.

Each movement (object technology, patterns, component-based, model-driven, Agile, service-oriented, Lean, craftsmanship etc etc) attempts to address a genuine problem, usually. And at the core of every movement, there's a little kernel of almost universal truth that remains true long after the movement that built upon it fell out of favour with the software chattering classes.

The problem I perceive is that this kernel of useful insight tends to become enshrouded in a shitload of meaningless gobbledygook, old wives tales and sales-speak, so that the majority of people jumping on to the bandwagon as the movement gains momentum often miss the underlying point completely (often referred to as "cargo cults").

Along with this kernel of useful insights there also tends to be a small kernel of software developers who actually get it. Object technology is not about SmallTalk. Patterns are not about frameworks. Components are not about COM or CORBA. Model-driven is not about Rational Rose. SOA is not about web services. Agile is not about Scrums. Responsibility-driven Design is not about mock objects. Craftsmanship is not about masters and apprentices or guilds or taking oaths.

In my experience, movements are a hugely inefficient medium for communicating useful insights. They are noisy and lossy.

My question is, do we need movements? When I flick through my textbooks from my physics degree course, they don't read as a series of cultural movements within the physics community. What is true is true. If we keep testing it and it keeps working, then the insights hold.

What is the problem in switching from a model of successive waves of movements, leaving a long trail of people who still don't get it, and possibly never will, to a model that focuses on testable, tested, proven insights into software development?

I feel for the kid who comes into this industry today - or on any other day. I went through the exact same thing before I started reading voraciously to find out what had come before. They may be deluged with wave after wave of meaningless noise, and every year, as more books get published about the latest, greatest shiny thing, it must get harder and harder to pick out the underlying signal from all the branding, posturing and reinvention of the wheel.

You see, it's like this. Two decades of practice and reading has inexorably led me to the understanding that very little of what I've learned that's genuinely important wasn't known about and written about before I was even born. And, just as it it is with physics, once you peel away the layers of all these different kinds of particle, you discover underlying patterns that can be explained surprisingly succinctly.

For those who say "oh, well, software development's much more complicated than that", I call "bullshit". We've made it much more complicated than it needs to be. It's a lot like physics or chess (both set-theoretic constructs where simple rules can give rise to high complexity, just like code): sure, it's hard, but that's not the same as complicated. The end result of what we do as programmers can be massively complicated. But the underlying principles and disciplines are simple. Simple and hard.

We do not master complexity by playing up to it. By making what we do complicated. We master complexity by keeping it simple and mastering how software comes about at the most fundamental level.

Logic is simple, but algorithms can be complex. A Turing Machine is simple, but a multi-core processor is complex. Programming languages are simple, but a program can be highly complex. Programming principles are simple, but can give rise to highly complex endevours.

Complexity theory teaches us that to shape complex systems, we must focus on the simple underlying rules that give rise to them. At its heart, software development has a surprisingly small core of fundamental principles that are easy to understand and hard to master, many of which your average programmer is blissfully unaware.

True evolution and progress in software development, as far as I can see, will require us to drop the brands, dump the fads and the fashions, and focus on what we know - as proven from several decades of experience and several trillion lines of code.

Posted 8 years, 6 months ago on April 19, 2012