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10 hard truths developers must learn to accept

Peter Wayner | April 3, 2012
On most days, programming is a rewarding experience, with no problem too challenging to solve. Perseverance, intuition, the right tool -- they all come together seamlessly to produce elegant, beautiful code.

On most days, programming is a rewarding experience, with no problem too challenging to solve. Perseverance, intuition, the right tool -- they all come together seamlessly to produce elegant, beautiful code.

But then a botched deployment, yet another feature request, or a poorly documented update with crippling dependencies comes crashing headlong into the dream.

Sure, we might wish our every effort had enduring impact, that the services our apps rely on would be rock-solid, that we would get the respect we deserve, if only from those who should know better. But the cold, harsh realities of programming get in the way.

That doesn't mean the effort isn't worth it. But it does mean we have some hard truths to face. Here are 10 aspects of programming developers must learn to live with.

Developer hard truth No. 1: It's all just if-then-else statements

Language designers argue about closures, typing, and amazing abstractions, but in the end, it's just clever packaging wrapped around good, old if-then-else statements.

That's pretty much all the hardware offers. Yes, there are op codes for moving data in and out of memory and op codes for arithmetic, but the rest is branch or not branch based on some comparison.

Folks who dabble in artificial intelligence put a more mysterious cloak around these if-then-else statements, but at the end of the day, the clever statistical recommendation engine is going to choose the largest or smallest value from some matrix of numbers. It will perform calculations, then skim through the list, saying, "If this greater, else if this greater, else if this greater," until it derives its decision.

Developer hard truth No. 2: Most of the Web is just data stored in tables

For the past 20 years, the word "Internet" has tingled with the promise of fabulous wealth, better friendships, cheaper products, faster communication, and everything but a cure for cancer. Yet at its core, most of the Internet is a bunch of data stored in tables.

Match.com? A table of potential dates with columns filled with hair color, religion, and favorite dessert. eBay? It's a table of deals with a column set to record the highest bid. Blogs? One table with one row for every cranky complaint. You name it; it's a table.

We like to believe that the Internet is a mystic wizard with divine wisdom, but it's closer to Bob Cratchit, the clerk from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," recording data in big accounting books filled with columns. It's an automated file clerk, not the invention of an electronic Gandalf or Dumbledore.

We see this in our programming languages. Ruby on Rails, one of the most popular comets to cross the Web, is a thin veneer over a database. Specify a global variable and Rails creates a column for you because it knows it's all about building a table in a database.

 

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