Thinking Matters

Posted on April 30, 2009 by Scott Leberknight

Aside from the fact that Oracle's Java Problem contains all kinds of factual and other errors (see the comments on the post) this sentence caught my eye in particular when referring to Java being "quite hard to work with" - "Then, as now, you needed to be a highly trained programmer to make heads or tails of the language."

What's the issue here? That Java is hard to work with? Perhaps more specifically, not just Java but perhaps the artificial complexity in developing "Enterprise" applications in Java? Nope. The problem is that this type of thinking epitomizes the attitude that business people and other "professionals" tend to have about software development in general, in that they believe it is or should be easy and that it is always the tools and rogue programmers that are the problem. Thus, with more and better tools, they reason, there won't be a need for skilled developers and the monkey-work of actually programming could be done by, well, monkeys.

I believe software development is one of the hardest activities humans currently do, and yes I suppose I do have some bias since I am a developer. Also contrary to what many people think, there is both art and engineering involved, and any given problem can be solved in an almost infinite variety of ways. Unlike more established disciplines that have literally been around for hundreds or thousands of years (law, medicine, accounting, architecture, certain branches of engineering like civil, etc.), the software industry hasn't even reached the century mark yet! As a result there isn't any kind of consensus whatsoever about a completely standardized "body of knowledge" and thus there isn't an industy-recognized set of standard exams and boards like you find in the medical and law professions for example. (That topic is for a future post.)

One thing that is certain is that software development involves logic, and thus people who can solve problems using logic will always be needed, whether the primary medium stays in textual format (source code) or whether it evolves into some different representation like Intentional Software is trying to do. So the statement from the article that "you needed to be a highly trained programmer to make heads or tails of the language" is always going to be true in software development. More generally, highly skilled people are needed in any complex endeavor, and attempts to dumb dumb complex things will likely not succeed in any area, not just software development. Would you trust someone to perform surgery on you so long as they have a "Dummies Guide to Surgery" book? Or someone to represent you in court who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night?

I hypothesize that things are becoming more complex as time moves on, not less. I also propose that unless we actually succeed in building Cylons who end up wiping us all out or enslaving us, we will never reach a point where we don't need people to actually think and use logic to solve problems. So even though many business-types would love to be able to hire a bunch of monkeys and pay them $0.01 per day to develop software, those who actually realize that highly skilled people are an asset and help their bottom line, and treat them as such, are the ones who will come out on top, because they will smash their competitors who think of software/IT purely as a cost center and not a profit center.


Good points all around.

I do wonder about the language complexity question though, at least from a relative perspective. The author did seem to be making a point of comparison between Java and the languages that preceded it, namely C++, and that it wasn't a significant reduction in complexity. My recurring malloc() nightmares disagree, but it just seemed to move the problems from memory allocation to garbage collection.

Posted by matt mcknight on April 30, 2009 at 12:31 PM EDT #

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