There’s a lot of talk these days about new web frameworks. Django, Turbogears and Ruby on Rails are leading the charge on new ways to build web applications. They undoubtably save time, improve productivity, and make developers happier. It’s easier to build sites with these frameworks and in these languages than with competing technologies.
Of course, all of the interest and hype will result in some backlash. Hacknot has an amusing rant, All Aboard the Gravy Train (with a great pun, “Now departing platform one”). He ultimately dismisses the new frameworks with:
Your time and energy is better invested in improving your abilities and skills than in adding another notch to your technology belt.
This is throwing out the baby with the bath water, as Pete Lyons ably argues in Defending Ruby on Rails:
The problem with these assertions are that they assume that learning the new technology neither offers new insight into the ‘principles or techniques of software development’ nor would ‘improve your ability and skill’.
I’ve been working in Django for eight months now, and it really is faster and better than other ways we could have chosen to build Tabblo. Django and Python have made the job easier, but only the actual writing of the software, which in my mind, is the easy part to begin with.
Building a great product involves a lot of hard work, much of which has nothing to do with coding:
- What should the product do?
- Who are the customers? What do they care about?
- Of our two (three?, n?) conflicting goals, which should I work on today?
- How do we architect the software to anticipate the unseen future?
- What’s the right architecture to ensure the application performs well?
- What can we do to make sure the site stays running around the clock?
- How do we balance short-term vs. long-term needs?
- Which add-on libraries and tools are right to incorporate into the product?
- How do we assess the quality of the product?
- What’s the right balance between adding features and fixing bugs?
- Which are the bugs that really interfere with the product’s success?
- When is the software “done enough”?
- How do we gauge the risk of any decision we make? How do we mitigate it? What’s plan B?
- What are the lessons from previous projects that apply here? Is this history repeating itself, or are we in new territory?
And this isn’t even covering the larger organizational issues of management, team building, and general inter-personal stuff that any software engineer on a real product will have to deal with, not to mention whole-business concerns like marketing, sales, support, and so on.
When I worked at Digital in the printer group, there was a joke among the software engineers: we claimed the hardware guys looked down on us because they thought that writing software was “just typing”. By focusing purely on coding issues, we software engineers run the risk of taking the same stupid view of our world.
At a certain simplisitic level, a web app is a straightforward piece of software: it has to accept request at URLs, dive into a database to get some data, build some results, format them into HTML, and return them to the browser. Django and Rails make this process easier, absolutely. But building a great web application involves so much more difficult work. The frameworks can help by simplifying coding so that we can focus on the remaining difficult problems.
When the hype-masters claim that their frameworks and languages make coding an application easier, they are absolutely right. But that’s already the easy part.