Monday, May 18, 2015

The Software Industry is standing in it's own way

The Software Industry is driven by Programming. Without programming, there would not be software, obviously.
The easier and faster programming will get, the better will the software industry deliver innovations, maintain their cash cows, gain customers, make revenue.
But then why is programming so hard? Why does it cost so much and why is it so often done so badly?

Learning a Programming Language is hard

Ever tried to explain to some non-programmer that has never seen or written source-code before how an application or website is built?

They have no clue, not even the slightest, what "programming" really is. In contrast to other complex fields such as architecture, brain-surgery, chemistry or law, the majority of people does not know how programming in principal works.

But they could be excellent programmers, perhaps. They are maybe just not into programming because they are not attracted to fiddling with source files, wading through compiler errors, gathering information from sources spread across the internet and writing expressions that are meaningless to them. (Ever thought about why it is called a "class", anyone?)

And then, there are so many!

Not only non-programmers need to learn a programming language. Especially when seeking a new job after programming for like 10 years for the same company, you will notice that the industry is split afar. Are you a C++ guru? Good luck finding a job if you do not have any embedded companies nearby. Are you a PHP veteran? You will be out of luck if you do not have any web companies in your reach. Wikipedia lists 122 programming languages.

Even if only counting the ones widely in use, you come up with quite a number: Java, C#, C++, C, Objective C, Visual Basic, PHP, Perl, Ruby, Python, JavaScript, COBOL (ugh!), FORTRAN (ugh, too), Object Pascal/Delphi.

And then there are the newcomers and niche-languages, maybe in use by your favorite start-up you would like to apply at: D, TypeScript, CoffeeScript, Clojure, Scala, F#, Go, Rust, Dart, Haskell, Lisp, Lua, Swift, Tcl, Erlang.

Not enough? Then here is a small excerpt from popular domain specific languages: SQL and PL/SQL (in different flavors from different DBMSes), CSS, XUL (for Mozilla Firefox), Regular Expressions, UNIX Shell Script, PowerShell, Matlab, XSLT, UML.

And knowing one of them is not enough

Making it even worse, you often have to use many of them to build a software, especially when doing web development. You need a backend language like Ruby (with the domain-specific framework "on Rails"), a domain specific language inside the UI template. Then you need to write the HTML skeleton and the CSS styles. Most often, you need to write some raw SQL, too. This sums up to SIX languages in parallel use. Have you ever heard bout context switches being harmful for work productivity?

At the company I am currently working for, we are looking for C++ programmers. We create software in the business domain. That doesn't suit too well - most applicants have a very, very technical background with either Matlab or embedded engineering as their main focus. UI and usability is often not important in these fields. Office software meets quite different requirements than mathematical or electrical stuff, that's why low-level programmers are usually not suited for the work we are doing.

But we can not easily hire a, say, web UI and usability expert with HTML, JavaScript and Ruby background. Because learning C++ is very hard, and if you do not already know it, the chance of writing buggy code is very high. So the only way to hire a programmer is either find a good C++ programmer that is not a number cruncher, or we hire a programmer without C++ background and train them before they take on actual work, which is very costly.

And even with the same Language, Things can be different

And even if you are an awesome programmer in, let's say Ruby, this does not get you far. What if the company you want to work for uses a framework that you have never used before and is totally different? Even when you create the same stuff with it. Try to learn Ruby on Rails? That's nearly as much as learning a new programming language. Try to learn Qt when you already know MFC or vice versa? Even harder, since you will fall back to your old habit and create shabby stuff that will not fit the new environment.

How silly this is

Why do we need so many languages, most of them only justified by irrational reasons? Why can't we have only a few programming languages that differ in their fundamental properties and are used in all domains that require these properties? One object-oriented language, one functional language, one declarative language, one data-definition language. Or maybe even only one programming language in different flavors or in different "modes".

Each language's quality would rise, their community would be bigger, making it easier to find help online. You could actually use the language that you learned at your university in your job. The evolution of the language would be quicker, since there will be more parties interested in it. Sure, this will bring up other problems, such as concurrent ideas and visions for the language. But these can be addressed. Or circumvented, if a single organization is responsible for the language. This has worked in the past, for example with UML, Java, C#, OpenGL.

The software industry is strange. No other industry would allow so many different approaches to the same problems at hand, because it does imply a huge financial risk for each company in the industry. The software industry might be just too wealthy or too ignorant to see and address these issues with programming. I think the main cause for the current status quo is because it is so easy to build a new language or a new framework. And the inner drive of many programmers to create "their own baby" instead of making someone else's product better and use it for your own purposes. That's in some way related with the complexity and diversity of current programming languages. Often forks, clones or similar projects are started because the initiator is used to a different programming language. Why would anyone port SQLite to CSharp, if you can access SQLite's C API from within C#?

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