On industry malaise

Robert Atkins linked to his post on industry malaise:

All over the place I see people who got their start programming with “view source” in the 2000s looking around at the state of web application development and thinking, “Hey wait a minute, this is a mess” […] On the native platform side, there’s no joy either.

This is a post from 2019, but shared in a “this is still valid” sense. To be honest, I think it is. I recognise those doldrums myself; Robert shared the post in reply to my own toot:

Honestly jealous of people who are still excited by new developments in software and have gone through wondering why, then through how to get that excitement back, now wondering if it’s possible that I ever will.

I’ve spent long enough thinking that it’s the industry that’s at fault to thinking it’s me that’s at fault, and now I know others feel the same way I can expand that from “me” to “us”.

I recognise the pattern. The idea that “we” used to do good work with computers until “we” somehow lost “our” way with “our” focus on trivialities like functional reactive programming or declarative UI technology, or actively hostile activities like adtech, blockchain, and cloud computing.

Yes, those things are all hostile, but are they unique to the current times? Were the bygone days with their shrink-wrapped “breaking this seal means agreeing to the license printed on the paper inside the sealed box” EULAs and their “can’t contact flexlm, quitting now” really so much better than the today times? Did we not get bogged down in trivialities like object-relational mapping and rewriting the world in PerlPHPPython?

It is true that “the kids today” haven’t learned all the classic lessons of software engineering. We didn’t either, and there will soon be a century’s worth of skipped classes to catch up on. That stuff doesn’t need ramming into every software engineer’s brain, like they’re Alex from A Clockwork Orange. It needs contextualising.

A clear generational difference in today’s software engineering is what we think of Agile. Those of us who lived through—or near—the transition remember the autonomy we gained, and the liberation from heavyweight, management-centric processes that were all about producing collateral for executive sign-off and not at all about producing working software that our customers valued. People today think it’s about having heavyweight processes with daily status meetings that suck the life out of the team. Fine, things change, it’s time to move forward. But contextualise the Agile movement, so that people understand at least what moving backward would look like.

So some of this malaise will be purely generational. Some of us have aged/grown/tired out of being excited about every new technology, and see people being excited about every new technology as irrelevant or immature. Maybe it is irrelevant, but if so it probably was when we were doing it too: nothing about the tools we grew up with were any more timeless than today’s.

Some of it will also be generational, but for very different reasons. Some fraction of us who were junior engineers a decade or two ago will be leads, principles, heads of division or whatever now, and responsible for the big picture, and not willing to get caught into the minutiae of whether this buggy VC-backed database that some junior heard about at code club will get sunset before that one. We’d rather use postgres, because we knew it back then and know it now. Well, if you’re in that boat, congratulations on the career progression, but it’s now your job to make those big picture decisions, make them compelling, and convince your whole org to side with you. It’s hard, but you’re paid way more than you used to get and that’s how this whole charade works.

Some of it is also frustration. I certainly sense this one. I can pretend I understood my 2006-vintage iBook. I didn’t understand the half of it, but I understood enough to claim some kind of system-level comfort. I had (and read: that was a long flight) the Internals book so I understood the kernel. The Unix stuff is a Unix system, I know this! And if you ignore classic, carbon, and a bunch of programming languages that came out of the box, I knew the frameworks and developer tools too. I understood how to do security on that computer well enough that Apple told you to consider reading my excellent book. But it turns out that they just wouldn’t fucking sit still for a decade, and I no longer understand all of that technology. I don’t understand my M1 Mac Mini. That’s frustrating, and makes me feel stupid.

So yes, there is widespread malaise, and yes, people are doing dumb, irrelevant, or evil things in the name of computering. But mostly it’s just us.

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