The Eternal Optimism of the Spotless Repository

We’re programmers. Programmers are, in their hearts, architects, and the first thing they want to do when they get to a site is to bulldoze the place flat and build something grand…It’s important to remember that when you start from scratch there is absolutely no reason to believe that you are going to do a better job than you did the first time.

Joel Spolsky in Things You Should Never Do, Part 1

There is a fleeting moment in every software project when it is absolutely perfect. It is the time between clicking “New” and “Save” in your code editor. In that brief interval, limitless potential and beauty. In every moment that follows, compromise and doubt (but working software, too!). Thus rule #24:

The original sin of code is writing it.


No wonder the siren song of rewriting from scratch is so hard to resist. It’s a chance at redemption. But what about an entire programming language? The creator of JSON thinks it’s a dandy idea:

The best thing we can do today to JavaScript is to retire it. Twenty years ago, I was one of the few advocates for JavaScript. Its cobbling together of nested functions and dynamic objects was brilliant. I spent a decade trying to correct its flaws…But since then, there has been strong interest in further bloating the language instead of making it better. So JavaScript, like the other dinosaur languages, has become a barrier to progress. We should be focused on the next language…

Douglas Crockford

Replace JavaScript with the name of whatever you’re working on, and this conversation happens everywhere software is being made all the time. The causal disdain for “dinosaur languages” is a nice touch. Joel has something to say about that too:

Before Borland’s new spreadsheet for Windows shipped, Philippe Kahn, the colorful founder of Borland, was quoted a lot in the press bragging about how Quattro Pro would be much better than Microsoft Excel, because it was written from scratch. All new source code! As if source code rusted.

We all know how that worked out for Borland.

Of course, JavaScript is terrible. Is it scalable? No. Is it maintainable? No. Is it portable? Not really. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, JavaScript is the worst web programming language, except for all the others that have been tried. As bad as it is, it’s pitfalls and shortcomings are thoroughly documented and understood. It is ubiquitous. As a working software developer, you’re almost certainly better off spending your time getting better at the language you’re using than jumping to a trendy new one. With JavaScript you may not enjoy the journey, but you will reach your destination. If you have the time and money to chase utopia, by all means please create the perfect language. If you have to ship a product to put food on your table, choose the devil you know over the one you don’t every time. And thus rule #17:

Legacy == proven

Also me

One thought on “The Eternal Optimism of the Spotless Repository

  1. Pingback: Developer Optimism | Voice of the DBA

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