March 4, 2015
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Whispers and Cries

Marcus Zarra laments the Dangers Of Misinformation, specifically when software developers share specific experiences that are later generalized so broadly that the overall impression is false.

For example, years ago Brent Simmons pointed out problems that were leading him to leave Core Data behind. Looking back, he says

The response to that post continues to amaze me. I come right out and say, multiple times, that you should use Core Data. And yet it’s used as a thing about how Core Data sucks.

Caves and Enclaves

Lots of software developers work in caves, using the tools and techniques they already know and adding whatever they’re required by circumstance to acquire. When they are at work they’re not at home, and when they’re at home they’re not reading journals or immersing themselves in books about software. So, when it comes to new technology, they rely on occasional hints they see or hear.

Other software developers work in enclaves – companies and clusters of companies that share a technical base and a technical attitude. Again, the common wisdom in an enclave gets formed by the bellwethers, and often that process of wisdom-formation is erratic.

Our problem is simply that lots of new ideas are actually bad ideas; things that ComputerWorld and TechCrunch tell you are the Big New Thing are sometimes yesterday’s thing and often nothing at all. Sometimes, a new system rolled out at WWDC will make your life better if you adopt it right away; sometimes, it’s going to make everyone miserable unless you wait a year or two for the dust to settle. (Years ago, Apple had a lovely technology called OpenDoc to which we made a big commitment. It was The Future. Then, one day, it was Cancelled. No more. Nice product you had there…)

Right now, Joel Spolsky’s Stack Exchange plays a crucial role in linking up caves and enclaves. It’s a technical forum, and it’s often astonishingly good: you search on the ridiculous error message that makes no sense that that you’ve certainly never seen before, and voila there’s someone else who reported exactly the same message last week, and explains who sent it and why. But lots of people on Stack Exchange don’t know what they’re talking about, and lots of them don’t have a very solid grasp of English, and so there’s also a fair amount of noise.

The Way Out

One good way out of this bind is simply to have better contacts.

Planning Tinderbox Six, I was guided by a number of warnings that Objective C++ was slow, poorly supported, doomed, or otherwise a Bad Idea. The problem was, Objective-C simply doesn't support a number of idioms on which Tinderbox relies. So I started to ask around: could we use a little Objective C++? Could we use it briefly as a transitional mechanism?

I asked lots of people who have solid Mac products and lots of experience, and the answer came back: “people say it’s a bad idea, but it’s not.”

“Are you sure?” I asked them. “Everyone says…”

“Everyone is an idiot. We’ve done everything that way for a couple of years.”

The Better Way Out

Make mistakes. Accept that code will be thrown away. Wrong turns aren’t a waste: they tell you where you didn’t want to go, and give you an idea of where you might head another time.

Find a way to be more at home with your work, and to work when you’re at home because it’s natural to do what you do. You can live with alienation, but you don’t want to.

Don’t trust the common wisdom of your technical enclave too far. Stand up, speak out, judge for yourself, and be ready to change your mind.