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Hammering Screws: Programmers and Tool Blindness

screws.jpgIn my last post I told a half-truth by ending with “If you need me I’ll be uninstalling Eclipse.” Honestly, I only removed it from my laptop because I rarely do any real Java development directly on my laptop, and should I need a quick code editor I have TextMate which handles most of my coding needs pretty simply. However, the commotion that the statement caused is what I’m going to address in this post.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
-Bernard Baruch

To continue with my tools theme I’m going to address what I’ll call “tool-blindness,” the mentality that the tools you have and know how to use are perfect for every situation. In other words, if the tools you have require you to hammer screws then by-god you’re going to hammer screws.

Recently there has been a grass-roots, developer movement at my employer to switch from Ant to Maven. I love Maven, it’s leaps and bounds better than the way we were using Ant. (Notice I didn’t say Ant in general, I’m only planning on starting one holy-war with this post!) My last four projects have used Maven, and it makes the build and deploy process significantly easier, especially when it comes to dependancy management. However, everyone’s favorite Java IDE does not play well with Maven because Maven’s standard directory layout is significantly different from Eclipse’s convention. People have attempted to alleviate this problem by using the M2 plug-in and following the instructions here, but the result still feels like you’re forcing Eclipse to do something it doesn’t want to. Add that to the fact that the version of Eclipse we’re using crashes at least once a day, and you should be able to see why I’m looking for alternatives.

In short, our metaphorical hardware (the build process) has changed from nails to screws and our hammer (Eclipse) is no longer the best tool for the job. However, we’re still using the hammer because it’s what everyone knows how to use and only a few of us are not tool-blind enough to look for something else. It also doesn’t help that the alternatives that play nicely with Maven, namely IntelliJ IDEA and Textmate-and-a-shell are not “free as in beer.”

As I mentioned in the comments of my last post, Eclipse has been feeling a little more like this tool than this one. So maybe it’s time to ask which tool you really want on your tool belt.

In an interesting turn of events, Alex Vazquez over at Wufoo/Particletree is going through the same process with a different perspective. Alex is moving, based in part by recommendation and in part by language choice, from Java on Eclipse to PHP on Textmate, and he seems to be liking it so far. Alex does, however, sum up Eclipse rather nicely, and coincidentally within my theme:

The right development environment can save a programmer countless hours and is like a hammer in the carpenter’s tool belt. Since my background was in Java, my preference was for large sledge hammers and my development environment of choice was the de facto Java IDE Eclipse. It has a number of amazing features like autocomplete, refactoring and hundreds of plugins for every task imaginable. It’s no secret Java requires mountains of code, but Eclipse was made to move mountains.
-Alex Vazquez

I think Alex really nails (pardon the pun) the fact that if you’re going to be doing Java Enterprise development you need an IDE that can handle it. You need something that generates the code and provides the re-factoring tools and autocompletion to make it possible to “move mountains.” However I’d like to pose a question to all Java developers who use Eclipse; how much of Eclipse do you really use? Besides re-factoring, code completion/generation, and cvs/svn/scm integration, is there anything else you couldn’t live without? Anything else that Textmate doesn’t do? (Besides run on Windows, we’ll save that tool for a different day.) Look at all of the stuff Eclipse does that you don’t use, is the added bulk really worth it? How much memory is your Eclipse process using right now? (Mine’s got ~254MB, 5x more than the next largest memory footprint, and my Eclipse process is basically idle.) Just my two cents, please form your own opinions, after all I’m just a kid who couldn’t possibly have any experience.

Coding Your Fingers Off - Hand Tools, Power Tools, and Programmers

saw.gifI have read quite a few posts recently on the lack of quality programmers, web or otherwise, available in the current market. I’ve even written a post myself on some of the “differences” in the technology stack between now and when I started programming professionally just four years ago. Some people are saying we need to encourage children to become programmers, others are questioning the languages that are taught in schools, still others are criticizing the things that are not taught (or encouraged) during secondary education. I’m going to question how things are taught.

I spent my first year of college at RIT, not to downplay my last three years at Muhlenberg, but everything I really needed to learn I learned in three quarters at RIT. Computer Science 101-103 had labs in a Sun Unix lab. We wrote Java code using Emacs from a shell. We compiled it from that shell. We checked it into RCS from that shell. We ran diffs from that shell. We submitted our completed assignments from that shell. We loved that shell, whether we wanted to or not.

We did not have an IDE, not in today’s sense anyway; there was no code complete, re-factoring tools, or visual SCM merging tools. In the process we learned Unix, we learned how to grep, how to use sed and awk, telnet, ssh, and command line ftp. We learned how the internet worked by first learning how a network worked. We learned to write code, use a computer, and use the internet with the functional equivalent of hand tools. In the process we learned and understood how and why it all fit together.

As a matter of illustration, I’m reminded of the Home Improvement television show that was on when I was a kid. In it, Tim Allen plays Tim Taylor, the host of a cable TV tool show called Tool Time. He has an assistant, Al Borland, played by Richard Karn. On the show, Tim’s motto is “more power,” which usually leads him to the biggest Binford Tools power tools, disastrous projects, and eventually the emergency room. Al, on the other hand, is more of a renaissance man, appreciating the beauty, elegance, and simplicity of hand tools and the wood they’re used on. Although I don’t think it was ever stated, Al never ended up in the emergency room. Which character would you hire to work on your house?

But I digress, we’re seeing more and more computer science grads who have worked only on Windows. They’ve used Eclipse and Visual Studio. They know how to use the very basic IDE functionality with the mouse and they live and die by ctrl+c and ctrl+v. They were given power tools in the very beginning of their careers and now quite a few of them have figuratively managed to cut their fingers off. They’re crippled programmers because the “more power,” here’s-a-monsterous-power-tool-that-does-everything-you’ll-ever-need-really-fast attitude has physically removed their ability to operate the simple tools that solve their problems in an elegant manner. They’re afraid of the shell because they don’t know how to use it, but they’re not afraid of the IDE because it has a big, shiny button that promises to make their life easier if they press it. Power tools in the real world have warnings about loss of life and limb if operated incorrectly. Sadly, power tools in the digital world do not.

So, I propose my solution. Bring the hand tools back into the classroom. Eliminate IDE’s from the educational system. Teach students to use the shell, and with it the tools of our hacker forefathers. Let them nick their fingers with a hand saw instead of cutting them off with a circular saw. Encourage them to use open source. Encourage them to contribute to open source. The web in general runs on it, they should know how it gets made, and know how to give back to the community that has made a large part of their future pay possible. Teach them Emacs or Vi. Give them cvs, svn, or git, and teach them to read a diff. Make them create a website and share what they’re learning, or at least participate in the forums of some pet open source project. Do them a favor and scare the ones who aren’t meant to be doing this out of the profession. If they don’t have the passion to persevere they need to find something else to do. Ladies and gentlemen of academia, I ask you for one thing. Stop manufacturing cookie-cutter, power-tool graduates and start nurturing artesian, master programmers.

Thank you. If you need me I’ll be uninstalling Eclipse.