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Today, I'm going to talk about a touchy subject: the notion of working in a company that doesn't use the prescribed "best practices" in its software development endeavours.  Over the years I have, using a variety of pseudonyms, asked this question on popular programming forums.  Although I always add in some minor variation of the story to avoid suspicion that it's the same person posting, the crux of the tale remains the same:

A Programmer’s Tale

A junior software developer has just started a new job at an average company, creating average line-of-business applications for internal use (the most typical scenario programmers find themselves in).  This hypothetical newbie has spent a lot of time reading up on the "theory" of software development, devouring books, blogs and screencasts from well-known and respected software developers in the community in order to broaden his knowledge and "do what the pros do".  He begins his new job, eager to apply what he's learned on a real-world project only to discover that his new teammates doesn't use any of those concepts and techniques.  They hack their way through development, or in a best-case scenario use some homebrew, thrown-together semblance of a framework for their applications that follows not one of the best practices suggested by the “elite” in the software community - things like TDD (TDD as a "best practice" is the only subjective part of this post, but it's included here due to a very large following of respected developers who consider it one), the SOLID principles, well-known and venerable tools, even version control in a worst case and truly nightmarish scenario.  Our protagonist is frustrated that he isn't doing things the "proper" way - a way he's spent personal time digesting and learning about and, more importantly, a way that some of the top developers in the industry advocate - and turns to a forum to ask the advice of his peers.

Invariably the answer I, in the guise of the concerned newbie, will receive is that A) I don't know anything and should just shut my mouth and sling code the bad way like everybody else on the team, and B) These "best practices" are fade or a joke, and the only thing that matters is shipping software to your customers.

I am here today to say that anyone who says this, or anything like it, is not only full of crap but indicative of exactly the type of “developer” that has helped to give our industry a bad name.  Here is why:

One Who Knows Nothing, Understands Nothing

On one hand, you have the cognoscenti of the .NET development world.  Guys like James Avery, Jeremy Miller, Ayende Rahien and Rob Conery; all well-respected and noted programmers that are pretty much our version of celebrities.  These guys write blogs, books, and post videos outlining the "correct" way of writing software to make sure it not only works but is maintainable and extensible and a joy to work with.  They tout the virtues of the SOLID principles, or of using TDD/BDD, or using a mature ORM like NHibernate, Subsonic or even Entity Framework.

On the other hand, you have Joe Everyman, Lead Software Developer at Initrode Corporation - in our hypothetical story Joe is the junior developer's new boss.  Joe's been with Initrode for 10 years, starting as the company’s very first programmer and over the years building up a little fiefdom of his own until at the present he’s in charge of all Initrode’s software development.  Joe writes code the same way he always has, without bothering to learn much, if anything.  He looked at NHibernate once and found it was "too hard", so he uses a primitive implementation of the
TableDataGateway pattern as a wrapper around SqlClient.SqlConnection and SqlClient.SqlCommand instead of an actual ORM (or, in a better case scenario, has created his own ORM); the thought of using LINQ or Entity Framework or really anything other than his own hastily homebrew solution has never occurred to him.  He doesn't understand TDD and considers “testing” to be using the .NET debugger to step through code, or simply loading up an app and entering some values to see if it works.  He doesn't really understand SOLID, and he doesn't care to.  He's worked as a programmer for years, and that's all that counts.  Right? 


Who would you rather trust?  Someone with years of experience and who writes books, creates well-known software and is akin to a celebrity, or someone with no credibility outside their own minute environment who throws around their clout and company seniority as the "proof" of their ability?  Joe Everyman may have years of experience at Initrode as a programmer, and says to do things "his way" but someone like Jeremy Miller or Ayende Rahien have years of experience at companies just like Initrode, THEY know ten times more than Joe Everyman knows or could ever hope to know, and THEY say to do things "this way".

Here's another way of thinking about it: If you wanted to get into politics and needed advice on the best way to do it, would you rather listen to the mayor of Hicktown, USA or Barack Obama?  One is a small-time nobody while the other is very well-known and, as such, would probably have much more accurate and beneficial advice.

NOTE: The selection of Barack Obama as an example in no way, shape, or form suggests a political affiliation or political bent to this post or blog, and no political innuendo should be mistakenly read from it; the intent was merely to compare a small-time persona with a well-known persona in a non-software field.  Feel free to replace the name "Barack Obama" with any well-known Congressman, Senator or US President of your choice.

DIY Considered Harmful

I will say right now that the homebrew development environment is the WORST one for an aspiring programmer, because it relies on nothing outside it's own little box - no useful skill outside of the small pond.  If you are forced to use some half-baked, homebrew ORM created by your Director of Software, you are not learning anything valuable you can take with you in the future; now, if you plan to stay at Initrode for 10 years like Joe Everyman, this is fine and dandy.  However if, like most of us, you want to advance your career outside a very narrow space you will do more harm than good by sticking it out in an environment where you, to be frank, know better than everybody else because you are aware of alternative and, in almost most cases, better tools for the job.  A junior developer who understands why the SOLID principles are good to follow, or why TDD is beneficial, or who knows that it's better to use NHibernate/Subsonic/EF/LINQ/well-known ORM versus some in-house one knows better than a senior developer with 20 years experience who doesn't understand any of that, plain and simple.  Anyone who disagrees is either a liar, or someone who, just like Joe Everyman, Lead Developer, relies on seniority and tenure rather than adapting their knowledge as things evolve.

In many cases, the Joe Everymans of the world act this way out of fear - they cannot possibly fathom that a “junior” could know more than them; after all, they’ve spent 10 or more years in the same company, doing the same job, cranking out the same shoddy software.  And here comes a newbie who hasn’t spent 10+ years doing the same things, with a fresh and often radical take on the craft, and Joe Everyman is afraid he might have to put some real effort into his career again instead of just pointing to his 10 years of service at Initrode as “proof” that he’s good, or that he might have to learn something new to improve; in most cases the problem is Joe Everyman, and by extension Initrode itself, has a mentality of just being “good enough”, and mediocrity is the rule of the day.

A Thorn Bush is No Place for a Phoenix

My advice is that if you work on a team where they don't use the best practices that some of the most famous developers in our field say is the "right" way to do things (and have legions of people who agree), and YOU are aware of these practices and can see why they work, then LEAVE the company.  Find a company where they DO care about quality, and craftsmanship, otherwise you will never be happy.  There is no point in "dumbing" yourself down to the level of your co-workers and slinging code without care to craftsmanship.  In 95% of these situations there will be no point in bringing it to the attention of Joe Everyman because he won't listen; he might even get upset that someone is trying to "upstage" him and fire the newbie, and replace someone with loads of untapped potential with a drone that will just nod affirmatively and grind out the tasks assigned without question.

Find a company that has people smart enough to listen to the "best and brightest", and be happy.  Do not, I repeat, DO NOT waste away in a job working for ignorant people.  At the end of the day software development IS a craft, and a level of craftsmanship is REQUIRED for any serious professional.  When you have knowledgeable people with the credibility to back it up saying one thing, and small-time people who are, to put it bluntly, nobodies in the field saying and doing something totally different because they can't comprehend it, leave the nobodies to their own devices to fade into obscurity.  Work for a company that uses REAL software engineering techniques and really cares about craftsmanship.  The biggest issue affecting our career, and the reason software development has never been the respected, white-collar career it was meant to be, is because hacks and charlatans can pass themselves off as professional programmers without following a lick of good advice from programmers much better at the craft than they are.  These modern day snake-oil salesmen entrench themselves in companies by hoodwinking non-technical businesspeople and customers with their shoddy wares, end up in senior/lead/executive positions, and push their lack of knowledge on everybody unfortunate enough to work with/for/under them, crushing any dissent or voices of reason and change under their tyrannical heel and leaving behind a trail of dismayed and, often, unemployed junior developers who were made examples of to keep up the facade and avoid the shadow of doubt being cast upon them.

To sum this up another way: If you surround yourself with learned people, you will learn.  Surround yourself with ignorant people who can't, as the saying goes, see the forest through the trees, and you'll learn nothing of any real value.  There is more to software development than just writing code, and the end goal should not be just "shipping software", it should be shipping software that is extensible, maintainable, and above all else software whose creation has broadened your knowledge in some capacity, even if a minor one.  An eager newbie who knows theory and thirsts for knowledge can easily be moulded and taught the advanced topics, but the same can't be said of someone who only cares about the finish line.  This industry needs more people espousing the benefits of software craftsmanship and proper software engineering techniques, and less Joe Everymans who are unwilling to adapt or foster new ways of thinking.

Conclusion - I Cast “Protection from Fire”

I am fairly certain this post will spark some controversy and might even invite the flames.  Please keep in mind these are opinions and nothing more.  A little healthy rant and subsequent flamewar can be good for the soul once in a while.  To paraphrase The Godfather: It helps to get rid of the bad blood.
Posted on Thursday, December 23, 2010 7:57 PM | Back to top

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