I found a pretty good twitter thread earlier today, in which @drboolean kicks off matters thus:
You shouldn’t program w/ X because not everyone knows X is a common arg I hear. That leaves us w/ beginner primitives & a popularity contest
I took the opportunity to snark about 1990s-era C++, but @theskaterdev put me on an excellent train of thought:
especially considering the increased cost of hiring and potential impact that has on speed of development.
us devs love to learn new things though and use that learnt skill like it’s the only way of doing things :)
That there is what I’ve seen as New Toy Syndrome, and I think it’s undervalued in the corporate, enterprise-y dev environment. Yes, that means I think we should have more of it. Lemme ‘splain.
The Professional Developer
Let’s start with this: As a professional software developer, my job isn’t writing software, it’s delivering value to the business by writing software. That’s obvious, right? I’m not going to go to work tomorrow and hack on a raytracer, although it’d be fun and I’d do a good job. I’m going to go to work tomorrow and hack on problems that’re going to make, or save, the business money.
So what’s the point?
Decisions around new tech, at work, need to be grounded in business value. That’s the “professional” part. But that actually says less than you think about whether you should try out that neat new SPA framework, or rewrite the back-end in Haskell, rather than struggling along in whatever ancient, established framework has ossified the codebase and slowly grown you an ulcer.
And yet, I keep seeing otherwise bright-eyed, clever, enthusiastic devs labouring desperately to push aside the Cool New Tech that might make their jobs easier (and more fun!) in order to signal that they’re too professional to come down with New Toy Syndrome. “Yeah, I like playing around with Elm on my own time, but I’m on the company dime right now and we’re sticking with Angular 1.x because that’s our agreed-upon technology-choice best practice.”
Yeah, no. There are plenty of good reasons why you might want to stick with the status quo – maybe you’re working to a fixed deadline and don’t have space for the risk of new tech. Grinding along on a suboptimal status quo because you’re afraid to look like a special snowflake isn’t “being a professional”, it’s ducking the problem.
A False Dilemma
“When you’ve just learned category theory, everything looks like Kleisli composition.” The big lie behind New Toy Syndrome is that it’s an either/or, all-or-nothing proposition… and that the “all” side is necessarily risky and irresponsible.
Guess what? It ain’t.
New tools are just that, new tools. Think of them the way your product manager thinks about stuff developers get excited about: What’s the risk, and what’s the reward? If your PM’s currently worried sick about extra schedule risks, find ways to introduce your new shiny with built-in risk mitigation – timeboxed experiments, say, or “oh, it’s just test code”. If you’re in a spot to drive your process forward, find ways you and your new toy can do that – lunch-and-learns, pilot projects, emphasize and measure the expected benefits.
While you’re at it, measure (and weigh) the cost of failure. What if you get into that greenfield ClojureScript project and find out that it’s utterly incompatible with your deploy pipeline? Identify the risks, acknowledge them, and find ways to mitigate them – and suddenly you can talk about them in a cost/benefit context rather than as scary stories that product managers tell the interns over a campfire.
Back To Professionalism
If you want to bring your new toy into your corporate mainstream, you’re more or less obliged to do it in terms of business value. Why do you like F# so much – fewer bugs and less boilerplate? Quantify that. Sell it.
See what you’re doing? You’re giving your company a chance to grow, to get better.
Maybe you’re worried about using your new favourite API for all the things. Maybe your team lead’s worried about you doing that. Maybe it’s not such a terrible idea! If nothing else, it’ll give you a bunch of data (or at least reasonably informative anecdote) about where that API works well and where it just doesn’t fit. Those stories have value. (Are they worth the time and effort? Well, what would you have done instead?)
Holding good ideas back because you’re worried about looking like “that guy” is unprofessional.
A Few Cultural Benefits of New Toys
I started writing a list of all the technical things you miss when you refuse to try new things, but it’s largely stuff you already know if you give even half a shit about this topic. However, when you introduce your favourite new toy to the company, you’re not just improving your tech stack.
Hiring And Retention
People worry that, if we rewrite our J2EE backend in Erlang, we’re going to have a hard time hiring people to maintain and develop it. Then they complain that, when they ask their recruiters for enterprise Java developers, they get a thundering herd of staggeringly mediocre candidates.
I submit that your company would probably find more high-end candidates – and at a discount – by hiring people who don’t have those outlier skills but want them. You want people who are motivated to learn and improve, right? Why not accept that as part of the job description?
The same logic applies to current developers.
For my money, the biggest positive effect this has isn’t making individual devs happy and engaged – it’s building a culture where those devs can bring their opinions on The Next Big Thing to the business, and have those opinions respected and acted upon. That’s devs being engaged and wanting to make things better, and managers trusting those devs to be invested in the business – not just punching keys in exchange for a paycheque.
When I started an F# pilot project in my very C#-dominated company, I spent far more time wrestling with tooling than I did writing code. I wanted to make the CI and deploy stories for my Suave service as close to the status quo as possible. I didn’t want to leave behind a special-snowflake build/deploy pipeline that nobody else really understood.
This had the happy side effect of teaching me a lot more about how our build-promotion-deploy process is set up, and why it’s set up that way. And when I had to ask for changes (“what user should run Windows services on this IIS pool?”), we weren’t butting heads; we were working towards the same goal more or less by default.
We found the parts of the process that were ossifying just by coincidence (“Oh, nobody’s tried this before except on IIS, but sure, Suave works too”), and made them more flexible. That’s opened up room for other people to come along and do similar, though not identical, things. A handful of better solutions to corner-case problems suddenly came to mind.
Uncle Bob says, “If you want your software to be flexible, you have to flex it.” Process is the same way. Introducing new toys that flex – but don’t tear apart – the current process makes it more adaptable, and (more importantly) gets people into the mindset that process should be made to serve them, not the other way around.
Let’s posit that, as a dev, you’re bringing your favourite new toy to work with the idea that it’s going to bring business value. There’s always the question of “well, did it work?” How can you tell? Probably you should make a prediction about the future, maybe in terms of some measurable metric. Even if you can’t do that, you’re sort of obliged to write up some lessons-learned and reflect on future improvements.
I’ve never seen anyone do that with “industry standard” technology. “Hey guys, how’s this integration database working out for us? Are we getting value out of the ORM it’s making us use?” Terrible things are just accepted as the cost of doing business.
Once you start bringing in new toys, and evaluating them, that old monolithic best-practices stack doesn’t seem so inevitable any more. And if you’re lucky, you start to realize that you can bring in a new toy, and watch it fail abysmally, and still get value out of that failure because now you have a better idea of your requirements. That’s the win – increased self-awareness, and increased willingness to improve.
It All Comes Back To Trust
Unsurprisingly, devs generally want to have a good reason to take a risk on behalf of the business and try something new that might fall flat on its face. Equally unsurprisingly, managers and stakeholders want to have confidence that the weird new gobbledygook that dev brought back from their latest conference is likely to provide some balance-sheet benefit.
That’s a matter of trust.
If the geeks and the suits at your company don’t trust each other not to screw the other party over, all of this is irrelevant. But if you do have a sufficient level of trust – and willingness to collaborate – exercising it by bringing in your new toys is a great way to make it stronger.