Sunday, March 31, 2019

Do young developers have it easier?

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The world of computer programming is changing, fast. In the short 10 years of my career, I have had chances to witness industry standards emerged, demolished, and resurrected. Serverless, the latest abstraction upon abstractions that mankind call programming, has had its glorious days and is now probably on the peak of Gartner Hype Cycle. The time I spent on XML and its abomination of a sibling XSLT is one I would never get back, though the problems have not necessarily gone away. And everyone is deep learning left, right and center, after decades of hiatus.

As we get better at reinventing programming paradigm, streamlining development process, and specializing careers, new crops of developers come into the work force, with perspectives drastically different from their previous generations. But does growing up with an iPhone in their pockets necessarily mean these developers have it easier?

Like youngsters of any species, young developers, despite their non-existential social skills and blissful ignorance, are known for being fast, energetic, and tenacious. And I think this is where a lot of misperceptions come from. Where I give credit to young developers is their stamina. Programming is neither easy nor relaxing. It is a demanding job requiring intense concentration. Young people have the energy, especially when combined with pizza and coffee, to stick to her computers at 2 in the morning, working on intermittent quirks of an API she released earlier, and yet be delight for the new knowledge and that her work matters. Such work is harder when one gets older. He has a life he needs to keep up with. Actually, he is probably pissed that the API doesn't just work the way it should be.

That, however, does not mean young developers get shit done faster. They really don't, otherwise you would see me preparing my retire plan really soon. If anything, they tend to screw thing up faster than The Flash on red bull. I have had almost every interns accidentally drop a database, or delete something they shouldn't have, in their 3-month time. Neither do they learn faster. I am in the camp of believing as one makes progress in his career, he learns faster. Programming knowledge is cumulative. "New" ideas usually have popped up some time before in a slightly different form, in some other language or situation. Young developers, outside of school work, do not spend time tinkering assembly, distributed model, or the 7 layers of the Internet. They rip the benefits of other developers who worked out the details and packaged them nicely so that they are more approachable by others.

Does the fact that young developers rely on more layers of abstraction a bad thing? Of course not. I am glad that I can just sit here writing my post in plain English and not HTML nor CSS. That's exactly how we progress as a species, relying on abstractions built by generations before. In that direction, current mature technology favors quick iterations and shorter time to market. But wait, isn't that good old Agile, what's the big deal? Agile is about building one thing that is small yet works well, then a little more. Yet in an ecosystem with 600k apps in Play Store alone, builders aren't even sure what if the one thing they are building gonna be a hit, or miss, till it is out. There are so many high quality reusable building blocks: authentication, real-time database, infinitely scalable database, etc. Writing a new software is now less about constructing and more about figuring out the right combination of gluing things together. The rise of function as a service means young developers can just build it. Work? No? Blow it up. Do it again. All before lunch starts. Older developers have been burned, they don't want to get burned again, they dread the concept of redoing till figuring out.

Though blessed with a beginner's mind, I think young developers still have a long way to go. I don't tend to find old developers that often. Part because IT is a new profession in where I am living. Part because many by their middle age move on to management level, or move out. The guys who remain hand-on throughout their career is really a force to be reckoned with. They are matured as a developer and have learned the art of leadership. They delegate appropriate work to junior people, balance between net contribution and learning something new, and thus saving both theirs and project time. People who have been around a while also see the bigger picture more clearly, both in terms of product scope and project life cycle, which problem can be delayed, and which shouldn't.

Then comes scaling. A new application gaining traction, at some point, would hit the scalability wall. Hard. Like Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball hard. Scaling is a lot harder than throwing together a bunch of code one did not write *cough* StackOverflow *cough*, and duct-taping till it works. A scalable system takes real dedication, expertise, and a calling to learn more and better ways to be a great developer. And these don't come over night.

Young developers are intelligent, hard working, and excellent at solving the problems they are given.
Old developers are intelligent, lazy, and excellent at predicting problems in 6 months time and building the right foundation today to make it easy when time comes.

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