Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Language Politics and Technology Decisions

When someone says "Java sux", or "Ruby rules", we need to always, always, always ask "for what?" The machinery of politics is alive and well in programming forums the world around. Everyone who has ever written a program or learned how to use a technology has a vested interest. They will continually be about the business of convincing others to use or learn it too. We need to understand that machinery in order to protect ourselves and have a more productive discussion. Better understanding of someone else's decisions as well as our own will also help us arrive at better decisions overall.

Decision Making

Politics is about decision making, and in technology we constantly make decisions. We make evaluations: Ruby or Java, XML or JSON, Flash or Ajax. We like to think these decisions are made on technical grounds, but I think if we look carefully we'll realize when we do the promoting we do so based on a mixture of reasons. (Do you make your decisions based on in-depth research, or whether you hate curly braces?)

Promotion of Interests

Politics has an important aspect when it comes to making decisions: it is always done in an environment of the promotion of interests. Not to be tedious, let me repeat those two parts:

1. promotion,
where the interesting thing is how are things promoted
and
2. interests,
where the interesting thing is identifying interests

Forms of Promotion

Promotion has different forms: direct or indirect, emotional or rational, personal or media-broadcast. We concentrate on rational discussion of technologies, and for good reason -- if something doesn't work, there's a price to pay, in starting over or cleaning up a mess and if we're not dead or fired, starting over. The rational basis for promoting a technology has to be there. But the emotional side is at work too, whether you like it or not. My wife maintains that if someone dresses sloppily that they won't be liked -- even if others don't understand why. Having an attractive website may or may not add to your presentation, but an ugly website almost certainly will detract from it. The take-home for this for technical people is that presentation and form play a part along with rational arguments. Iron your arguments, iron your shirt, iron your website. ("Iron your Python"?)

Identifying Interests

All the time we encounter people promoting this language or that tool. And often enough we ourselves are doing the promoting, even if not in Superbowl ads. As already noted by many others, even if you're not a salesman who stands to make a commission from convincing someone to adopt technique T, you stand to gain more benefit from your vested interest in T if another person uses it. (Note that "technology" derives from the same root as "technique"; design patterns are materially as much a technology as the Python 2.5.1 distribution). You can act as a consultant for newcomers to T, and you attract more people to maintain and improve work already using T. Cisco Systems actively promotes network administration training programs for high-school students, as part of making sure network usage grows as much as they'd like it to. Microsoft was visiting programming language groups, who are notoriously ill-funded, looking for people designing new languages offering funding to target the .NET platform. Some in industry like to talk about this as "growing the ecosystem." The point is that when you hear someone promoting a technique, they're promoting it from their interests, not necessarily yours. It's not always as obvious as when you get a call from a salesman.

Evaluating Proposals

The primary question to ask when you evaluate a technical proposal then is not unfamiliar: what's in it for me. Or rather you should be asking "what would this technique/language/framework do for me in the environment I have." The Hennessy and Patterson computer architecture books hammer home this maxim about evaluating a computer architecture:
The true benchmark is the wall clock time of the program or programs you will actually use most often
Paul Graham designed a language that Paul Graham liked. Maybe there was a different way he could have handled its announcement. But I venture that part of the over-hype problem with the Arc announcement last week is that when Paul Graham wrote about how great a language he was designing, people were hearing how great it would be for them, mentally filling in unsaid things with features they'd like to see, and not pausing to try to align what Paul's interests were with what their interests were. The thing is... though we may have an opinion, we may not always know what would help us.

Know Yourself

When someone tells you "you need better tools: try Lisp", ask "what about Lisp do you think would help me?" If they start listing reasons without first trying to understand who you are, may I say there's a problem.

This has me thinking about a conversation from the film Joe vs. the Volcano between Marshall the limo driver and Joe, who is preparing for a trip at the end of which he plans to jump into a live volcano. I've adapted it to acknowledge the need to know what we're trying to do, and at the same time how hard that can be. Instead of the limo driver, JFKBits plays the part of technical consultant's technical consultant, and instead of the volcano jumper preparing for his big trip with carte blanche Joe plays the part of a programmer for hire:

JFKBits: So what would you like to do?
JOE: Excuse me?
JFKBits: What would you like to do, sir?
Joe thinks for a moment.
JOE: I thought I might like to learn some programming language.
JFKBits: Okay. What would you like to program?
JOE: I don't know.
JFKBits: Alright.
JOE: What would you program?
JFKBits: For what? What do you need?
JOE: A web application.
JFKBits: What kind of web application? What does your client need?
JOE: I don't exactly know.
JFKBits pulls the car over and stops.
JOE: Why'd you stop?
JFKBits: I'm just hired to consult with you, mister. I'm not here to tell you who you are.
JOE: I didn't ask you to tell me who I am.
JFKBits: You were hinting around about programming languages. It happens that programming languages are very important to me, Mister..
JOE: Reader.
JFKBits: Reader. The programming language makes the man. I believe that. You say to me you wanna learn some programming, you wanna write a webapp, but you don't know what kind. You leave that hanging in the air, like I'm going to fill in the blank, that to me is like asking me who you are, and I don't know who you are, I don't wanna know. It's taken me my whole life to find out who I am and I'm tired now, you hear what I'm sayin'?

In the movie, the topic is clothes: "clothes make the man." As with clothes, there is a very personal element about the things we work with on a daily basis, and it's worthwhile understanding why you like what you like. I'd wager that for most people, past a certain age, their preferences and reasons are locked in and choice of tools is largely based on what's familiar.

Unlike Marshall, I think too many of us are far too eager to advocate our personal technical decisions to people with whose needs and environments we are not well acquainted.

Some Applications

When being consulted by others about what technical choice to make, we should always ask "what do you need it for? What are your interests?"

When being persuaded, we should always ask "what is this good for, and does that line up with my reasons?"

When persuading, we should exercise due diligence to identify why someone should care; in particular, what interests do we share such that what makes this decision appealing for me also makes it appealing to you.

Conclusion

When you see judgments ("Ruby rulz"; "the real WTF is they were using PHP"; "the tools for Python stink") in an online forum, realize they represent the end result of a decision-making process by a person who is not you and most likely has a very different set of interests. If you have an axe to grind, i.e. they're challenging your judgment, you may unnecessarily expend effort "debating", effort which may be more productively spent understanding the underlying interests and reasons for arriving at a conclusion.

If you can determine they really are your political opponent, that you are in direct competition for the same target audience, I suppose you could go at it. But I think we too often assume that different conclusions imply either competition or faulty reasoning processes. Just a little bit of effort in understanding "where are you coming from" may be more appropriate and ultimately more enlightening.

1 comment:

JohnMitchell said...

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