Richard Hart

Head of Something @ Somewhere
Kent, UK

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Don’t be a DSL (a.k.a When Developers Go Stale)

I’m not talking about being a Domain Specific Language, I’m talking about being a Domain Specific Loser. These are they people who don’t go to the trouble, and it is trouble, of broadening their skills and learning new things. They are the people who don’t care about anything that doesn’t have anything to do with what they are working on.

Hey, I didn’t sign up for this!

Technology is such a fast changing industry, that if you don’t keep up, you’re going to get left behind pretty fucking quickly. I had a load of things listed as points that every developer should be doing and then came across a post by Jay Fields which summed it all up perfectly:

  • Have you tried Test Driven Development? Can you name something you liked and something you disliked?
  • What language(s) that are gaining popularity, but not yet mainstream, have you written Hello World in?
  • Do you read books or blogs looking for new ideas at least (on average) once every two weeks?
  • Do you at least attempt to learn a new language every year?
  • If you don’t understand a requirement, do you IM, phone, or go talk to the business?
  • Have you ever run a code coverage or cyclomatic complexity tool against your codebase?
  • and so on…

On average, 50% of the people I’ve worked with cannot answer those questions correctly. If you can’t answer them correctly

  • You’re junior and could use a good mentor.
  • Or, it’s time to find a new profession.

Developers go stale. It’s just a fact. I was stale and then I discovered Ruby on Rails and I was born again. I don’t mean that to say that Ruby on Rails is the light, but rather that Rails opened my eyes to doing things ‘better’. It got me excited about technology and programming again. It got me constantly thinking “How can I improve?”. And since then it’s been a long steady stream of new ideas, new techniques and new tools. Groovy, Grails, Git, Proper CSS, TDD, Agile, Scrum and of course OSX, etc. I am spending increasing amounts of time buried in blogs or books. Clean Code was a complete eye opener and my current read, Refactoring to Patterns, has me feeling like I am attaining programming Zen.

I think a lot of developers kid themselves into thinking they are developers. Even after working as one for nearly ten years I still feel like I’m a scraping off the bottom of a very deep barrel. Being a shit programmer is easy, anyone can cut and paste some code together, but where is that going to get you? When you hit 30+ are you really going to have the skills necessary to start jumping into to the £50k+, £75k+, £100k+ salary bracket? No, you’re not. Sorry. At that point, we’re playing for high stakes, and they don’t hand those jobs out to just anyone. If you’re a developer and reading this post, take a look at those Jay Fields’ questions again and be honest with yourself. If you can’t answer them correctly, you should seriously take a long hard think about what you’re doing with your career. You should be doing something you care enough about, that you want to be as good as, if not better than, the people at the top of the game.

Being shit is easy, being good is hard. We live in a world where no one wants to do anything for themselves, but that’s not how the world works. So do the right thing. Step outside the comfort of your regular language, read some books, read some blogs, try some new techniques. That’s all you need to do. Don’t allow yourself to become stale by working within the confines of your 9-5 job, its codebase and the developers around you. You need to step out of that mentally to really see what’s going on in the world of technology. I’ve probably learnt more from developers I’ve never met, then those that I’ve sat next to for years! If I hadn’t stepped out of such a silo, I’d still be developing applications in Struts, forever re-compiling and restarting the server, wishing there was an easier way. Now that I’m using Grails, I don’t know how I ever got by before. And with all the lessons and techniques I’ve learnt over the past six months, going back to those old Java/Struts applications is a joy, as it’s a chance to flex my muscles and do some fun refactoring and sprinkle some syntactic sugar around (Nothing is more satisfying then sweetening some smelly code).

It’s hard for some people to swallow. Being a developer today is not what being a developer was 5 or 10 years ago. A lot of people don’t want to adapt, and that’s fair enough, but that’s how species become extinct. They don’t adapt. Being a developer today is about so much more then just developing code. It’s about delivering solutions. From soup to fucking nuts. We should be able to interact with customers, spec out pieces of work and participate in groups to ultimately deliver on a customers’ need. It’s a bitter pill to take but that’s what the job is. It’s a far cry from what it was before, where writing software was like a holy quest, and the crusaders could never be questioned for fear of ever increasing budget and timing overruns. These days there are companies delivering software of such high quality and at such a high pace that customers become understandably agitated when their developers fail to do the same. There used to be a time where you could deliver a piece of shit and get away with it because people still didn’t really understand the web and what it was capable of. But you’re damned these days as clients want the same small features that make sites like Facebook, Gmail or Yahoo a pleasure to use. “What do you mean you can’t do it? XXX does! How hard can it be?”. Ouch I hope you’re up-to-date on your skills when that question comes around.