Hi, my name is Justin and I have a problem. I’m insane!1
Being insane really sucks. But I’ve got a plan to get back on track. First, I’ll dole out some blame. Then, I’ll give a little background. Next, I’ll really dig into my current insanity. And finally, I’ll layout my plan for the future.
I like to curse. And when I’m mad, I find it definitely helps to calm the rage. So to begin, I’d like to give a big fuck you to Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas, the pragmatic programmers. I love you guys but you get at least some of the blame for making me insane. Next, I’d like to give some blame to my wonderful employer, Gorilla Logic, and their penchant for landing such a diverse set of inspiring projects. You suck for building a candy store and filling it with the sweetest treats.
Unfortunately for me, the lion’s share of the blame is mine and mine alone. I’m insane today because of my lust for the new coupled with my desire to be great. I want to be a great dad, a great husband, and a great employee. Who wants to be average?
It’s just not possible that I’m alone. Who doesn’t like cool new stuff? Who doesn’t want to be great? There must be thousands, if not tens of thousands, of fellow developers suffering from insanity that goes undiagnosed. So this tale goes out to you, my functionally insane brethren. Together we can heal ourselves.
Who Am I?
I’d like to give a little background before I get in too deep with my current insanity. I’m a developer. I get paid to write code (woo hoo!) to solve problems. Blah, blah, blah, if you just fill in the rest with a bunch of geek stereotypes you won’t be far off. Yes, I like to IM my coworkers instead of just walking over and talking with them. Yes, I read slashdot. Yes, I read sci-fi. Yes, I played lots of Dungeons & Dragons.2 Et cetera…
I consider myself a smart guy, just like every single developer I’ve ever met. I stay hungry and motivated to learn something new every day, every week, every year. Thanks to Andy and Dave, I learn one new language every year. And most importantly, I try very hard to listen or at least listen more than I argue. Sometimes it doesn’t work out so well, but that’s another tale…
How I Became Insane
I’m a big fan of “right tool for the job” in both life and development. In the realm of development, the concept of right tool for the job has metamorphosized into right language for the job, aka polyglot programming. On the face of it, polyglot programming has a lot of advantages (here’s a good talk by Dean Wampler), but it is one of the root causes of my insanity.
I’ve also been diligently learning my one language a year for a while now. And when you combine that with work, it has simply become too much. I’ve become scattered, my mind has become messy. Looking at the syntax level, the symptoms are acute. I can’t write a loop. I can’t match a pattern. I can’t build array operations. My context switching pain is severe, it can literally take hours before I get back up to speed with the language at hand.
But it’s not just the low-level stuff anymore. I’m finding that even at the highest levels of architecture, clean thought is hard to achieve. Different languages tend to espouse different patterns and paradigms that directly impact architecture level decisions. For example, if I wanted to write a server in PHP I might consider using OS support like fork and cron. In Java, I’m off in thread land. Erlang it’s processing and messaging. Scala is all about actors.
I find myself mixing paradigms and doing stupid stuff, like trying to fake Erlang’s message passing in PHP by multiple scripts communicating by repeatedly touching rows in a database. Dumb, but becoming harder to avoid as everything slowly bleeds together in my mind. I’m in the mud and I desperately what to be clean again.
My Current Insanity
Here’s a broad sample of what I’ve done lately (as in the last month or so) for work and personal projects:
- Erlang – Work
- Freshened my Erlang, wrote a sample custom module for ejabberd, played with Nitrogen.
- Flex/AS3 – Work
- I helped out a little bit with FlexMonkey 1.0, including the fuzzy pixel bitmap comparison support.
- Flex/AS3 – Work
- ScrumMonkey is another Gorilla Logic open-source project. I upgraded everything to work with Flex 4 and LCDS 3.0.
- Java – Work
- Fun with Spring, Hibernate, and Spring Actionscript. Can’t say any more about the project.
- Objective-C – Justin
- Wrote and published a US states and capitals memorization helper app. Read more or get it from the app store.
- Objective-C – Work
- iPhone and iPad. Cool stuff. Can’t talk about it yet.
- PHP – Justin
- Released Viceroy, a one-column WordPress theme with a dash of pink.
- PHP – Work
- We needed to get our community feedback out of Google Groups and into our FlexMonkey Forum. I wrote a simple scrapper in PHP and blogged about it.
- PHP – Justin
- Various WordPress and Drupal side projects just for fun.
- Ant, Maven, Bash, Rake – Work & Justin
- Scripted a bunch of stuff…
And that’s just my current insanity: the languages that I’ve touched lately. But I’m not special! At least, not in this case. The list is similar for many co-workers, and many of my friends that are web developers.
The Sensible Plan
If I’m to blame, then I’ve got to be the one to fix it. So here’s my plan:
- Forget one language every year – Forget the syntax, forget the weirdness, and forget the whole ecosystem (frameworks, tools, community). Say goodbye and don’t look back. But before you leave a language behind, pick one core concept, one of the things the language does right, and take that with you. For example, when I forget Erlang, I’ll take the concept of concurrent programming with me. So I’ll remember stuff like immutability, message passing, and processes. When I forget Ruby, I’ll take DSLs with me. Ruby does lots of stuff well, like blocks, mixins, terse syntax, and meta-programming, but I always enjoyed using all the great DSLs the best, so that’s what I’ll remember.
- Don’t learn one programming language every year – Yep, I’m going against Andy & Dave. So no Haskel, Clojure, Duby, Go, or Reia for me this year. I’m obviously feeling a little full on languages right now, so I’ll take a break for a few years.
- Learn one or more APIs every year – Since Web 3.0 is all about APIs, I might as well spend some time learning more of them. The big boys are obvious: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Google Maps, but there are plenty more that are really interesting. From the practical side, every single web project either integrates with other APIs, wants their own API, or has some set of requirements that force a good SOA architecture (aka some internal set of APIs).
- Upgrade my soft skills – Slinging code is fun, but it can’t be the only thing I do if I want to be a great employee. So instead of picking up all these little bits of shiny tech, I’m going to going to focus my lust for the new on upgrading my soft skills. I write this blog to improve my writing, but I haven’t spoken at a big conference since CLEO/QELS in 1999 and I was really bad. So I hope to do some public speaking in 2010.
Basically, I’m hoping to elevate my kung-fu by going for more depth of knowledge. Then, I’ll do my best to control the relentless expansion of breadth. New and shiny is no longer sufficient. Talking things through with co-workers and writing this post is a great first step into the future. I’m already feeling optimistic about my path.
- I’m not really insane, at least I don’t think so. I’m just functionally insane. For a glimpse into the mind of a real schizophrenic, I highly recommend Is There No Place On Earth For Me? by Susan Sheehan. It won the non-fiction pulitzer prize in 1983, so it’s a little bit dated now, but an unimaginable story.
- Actually, my friends and I played a lot of Rolemaster (wikipedia) and Champions (wikipedia) which are superior role playing games. If you are a true fan, you’ll understand. If not, the image of boys with dice conjured by Dungeons & Dragons is a good takeaway.
UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up post to address all the great feedback: Schizophrenic Following