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The DIY "Antipattern"


Permalink 10:00:30 am, by fumanchu Email , 631 words   English (US)
Categories: IT, Python

The DIY "Antipattern"

I don't get it. I keep seeing people try to help software developers by telling them to stop trying (not trying to pick on you, John). There is a consistent trend to answer tough questions with, "someone has already written that, go use theirs". When did that start, and why do I keep seeing it?

I should probably explain why I find it a hard pill to swallow. Quite simply, I have strong recent experiences where I learned far more about a technology by building it than by using someone else's. This is certainly the case with my two "main" frameworks right now, Cation and Dejavu. Cation is a web application framework, and Dejavu is an object-relational mapper. In both cases, there are already many Python implementations, each with their own quirks and design decisions. Part of what drove me to write my own was that, given a choice between a dozen or more viable Python web app frameworks, I didn't have enough information to decide between them. Writing my own gave me that knowledge. I now feel I have the ability to judge which one I would go with in a new project, because I've hit the roadblocks myself and overcome them. Just as importantly, I know my own data better and can better match up the feature set that supports our requirements.

I'm the only programmer here at Amor, so I have to write a little bit of everything. I have to say that in those cases where I do go with someone else's code, I almost always learn it and live with it, for good or ill. Nothing ever gets fixed, it only gets worked around. Real fixes have a much higher cost--when it's Someone Else's Code, it's Somebody Else's Problem.

If software development is a craft, then we have to allow the apprentices to try things out. Maybe you, dear reader, got all the training you'll ever need in college, where you were forced to write compilers and parsers, full UI's and databases. But I didn't. I'd still like to learn more.

Fu's First Law: Everything's hard 'til you've done it once.

Now some synchronicity: Patrick Logan linked me just now to James Robertson who linked to Jeff Atwood, who says

...if you do want great software, you have to let the developers own what they're building.

The converse is also true for me: if you want great software, you have to let the developers build what they're owning.

Do I think this is always true? Of course not. I'm not advocating a glorified "Not Invented Here" syndrome. There's no need for me to write Python all over again (however, I needed to hack bytecode for Dejavu). I don't need to write mod_python all over again (however, I needed to inspect its source code on more than one occasion for Cation). My point is that context is all-important, and recommending to someone that they skip the learning process strikes me as irresponsible, if you do not first inquire about that person's context.

Update: and now I read Jeffrey Shell: "But in my experience, the work required to do a good integration in a lot of these systems seems to be about equal to writing one from scratch."


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