2012-07-15

No Best Practices Yet

I'm getting a little tired of the constant onslaught of religious wars in software development these days. Every day, there's a new "PHP sucks vs. PHP is the best evar!", "Nodejs is crap vs Nodejs async FTW!", "OOP is a failure vs. FP doesn't get things done", "Agile vs. anything else" article. It's frustrating, because everyone is wrong.

Mankind has been building bridges for literally tens of thousands of years. From the first moment a primitive monkey-man threw a log across a stream and every other moneky-man tribe copied the idea, we've been building bridges. And guess what? As a species, we're really good at it.

And over the millennia, we've developed the discipline of engineering. At its core, engineering is nothing more than a set of best practices that say, "Hey, if you build your bridge this way or that way (depending on its purpose), it will most likely stay up for a really long time and continue to serve the function that you meant it to serve." If you ignore those best practices of engineering, your bridge may stay up, or it may not. And anyone who does build their bridges according to best practices will be able to look at your bridge and tell you why you have failed.

How does this relate to software? Mankind has been writing computer code for less than a century. Modern programming languages have been around for about 40 years. The current crop of "high level" languages (PHP, Ruby, Java, Python, Javascript, Clojure, etc.) have only been around for about 20 years. The processes by which software gets built have been constantly evolving; we can't even agree on a definition of an "agile methodology." There are new programming languages, new frameworks, new architectures, new hardware, new ideas constantly coming out of the best minds in our field.

So why does any single camp believe they know best when it comes to software "best practices?" Our discipline is so young that I don't believe any tool or method used by any software developer nowadays can be considered a "best practice."

I'm sure back in the prehistoric days, monkey-tribes thought that a log across the stream was a best practice. They couldn't envision how mathematics, physics and materials would change to allow them to build better, stronger bridges. Fast-forward to current day, and building bridges is a pretty rigorous discipline. Even breakthroughs in stronger, lighter materials don't change the underlying principles of bridge-building. Engineers might have personal preferences for the type of bridges they like to build, but they don't debate over the fundamental rules of how to build a given bridge type, or which bridge type might be superior for a given purpose (unless the purpose is so trivial that aesthetics or personal preference can be a factor beyond physical properties.)

And yet, every time a new language or framework pops up in software, entire populations of the development community are willing to abandon what came before in droves and proclaim the new way as self-evidently superior. Ignoring, of course, that that everyone said the same thing about whatever they were leaving behind the last time.

Every article I've read on either side of any of these debates can be boiled down to "my brain doesn't work that way, it works this way, therefore, this way is superior." I've yet to see a compelling argument given for any side of any software debate that doesn't have the subtext of simply being the author's personal preference. And that right there tells me that our profession is too young to have decided on what is or is not a best practice.

So yeah, let's keep throwing our logs across the stream and fighting over whether oak is better than pine, ignoring that as soon as we discover steel the debate will be pointless. At least be willing to admit that while the tools and methods we have today might be the best we can come up with, they're certainly not "best practices" yet.

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