Interop Briefs: Check your politics at the door

(Originally appeared on TheServerSide, November 2006; I’ve made some edits to it since then.)

As we prepare to enter the holiday season here in the US, I think it’s time that we called for Peace on Earth. Or, at least, Peace in Computer Science.  

In 2000, when Microsoft first announced the .NET Framework (then called by various alternative names, such as the “Universal RunTime (URT)” or “COM3” or the “Component Object Runtime (COR)”), it was immediately hailed as the formal declaration of war on Sun and Java, if not an actual pre-emptive attack.

Within the industry, a schism already present was made deeper—developers were routinely asked “which side” they were on, whether they were supporters of “open” standards and “community-driven” development, or whether they were trying to support the evil corporate conglomerates. (I’ve since lost track of who’s supposed to be good or evil—Sun because they refused to release Java to an international standards body, IBM because they are trying to subvert Sun’s control over Java, Microsoft because they routinely “embrace and extend” open standards, or Oracle, because… well, just because.) I’m personally regarded as some kind of heretic and looney because not only do I routinely write code for both the Java and .NET platforms, but because I refuse to say, when asked, which one I like “better”.

You know what? I’m damn tired of these arguments. Can’t we all just get along and write software?

It’s not like these arguments really do much for our customers and clients. Truth be told, few of the people who use our software can even tell which platform the silly thing was written in, much less how it being written in Java will somehow make the world a more free (as in speech, as in beer, as in sex, whatever) place. Or that .NET somehow allows for multiple languages—generally speaking, the only language they care about is the one they speak and read and interact in. Most of the time, they’re just happy if they can use the software—remember, according to statistics routinely cited at conferences and presentations, half the time our customers never see software they’ve asked for, and when they do, it’s likely to be twice the budget costs originally anticipated, with half the features they originally asked for, in a user interface they don’t quite understand, even though it’s supposed to be “the latest greatest thing”.

This is progress?

Over the last five years, there’s been a quiet revolution under way, and it’s not the dynamic language revolution, nor the REST-HTTP-SOAP revolution, nor the agile revolution, nor AJAX. It’s not about containers or dependency injection or inversion of control or mock objects or unit testing or patterns or services or objects or aspects or meta-object protocols or domain-specific languages or model-driven architecture or any other fancy acronym and accompanying hype and marketing drivel. It’s a revolution of pragmatism, of customers and clients and others turning to developers and saying, “Enough is enough. I want software that works.”

“Works” here is a nebulous term, but before the Marketing goons start spinning the term to their best advantage, let’s clarify: “Works” is a simple term, as defined by our customers, not us. “Works” means runs in a manner that’s genuinely useful to our clients and customers. “Works” means it’s delivered close to on time and preferably under budget. (Nothing will ever make that utopian dream come true completely, so let’s be more realistic about the process—besides, close to on time and budget is a pretty good goal to shoot for right now, anyway.) “Works” means software that attaches itself to the existing mess we’ve made over the years, without having to rip out a whole bunch of servers and replace them with a whole bunch more. “Works” means taking what a customer has, in place, that already meets that definition, and tying the new stuff we’re building into that existing mess.

“Works” means, practically speaking, that we take the languages and tools that are available to us, and use them each to their advantage, regardless of political affiliation or perceived moral stance. That means taking Microsoft’s tools and technologies and tying them into Java’s, and vice versa. That means dropping the shrill rhetoric about how each is trying to “leverage” the other out of existence, and figuring out how to use them all together in a meaningful and technologically powerful way. That means recognizing that we are all one community, not little villages out in the countryside trying to beat each other into submission even as we try to scrape a living off the land.

Recently, I’ve picked up two books that I think typify my approach to programming in 2007, both by Larry Winget: “Shut Up, Stop Whining, & Get a Life”, and his more recent follow-up, “It’s Called Work For a Reason”. In both, he points out that there is no “secret sauce”, no “secret recipe” to success, and that for most of us, we already know what the Right Thing To Do is… we just don’t want to accept it or admit it. I think that in a lot of ways, the debates over which platform to use and whose language is better are ways that we technologists avoid the much harder problem of dealing with customers. I think it’s high time that we face that in the mirror, stop talking so much, and start listening more.

Abraham Lincoln, the man who had the unfortunate luck to preside over the United States during its most divisive era, once said, “A house divided cannot stand.” Neither will ours, I fear, if we keep this up. Please check your politics at the door—here, we care only about how tools can be used to solve problems.