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Lessons from a lost decade: Developing for a disposable Web

Neil McAllister | March 12, 2010
Say good-bye to monolithic systems and legacy appsand hello to the era of expendable apps.

In recent years we've seen this fast-and-loose approach work even for high-profile Web sites. For example, now that it has established itself and has experienced some scaling issues, Twitter has begun phasing out Ruby code for a new platform written in Scala, a multiparadigm programming language that runs on the Java virtual machine.

Second, development shops that measure employee productivity by lines of code written or some similar metric are doing it all wrong. If we assume that code created for Web applications has a short shelf life, the best way to avoid wasting employee productivity is to write less code, not more.

Today's developers have access to a wide range of libraries, frameworks, servers, and tools with which to assemble Web applications. They should use them. As Web app development increasingly becomes the process of assembling these prebuilt components, developers are able to focus on the business logic that drives their applications, rather than wasting time writing and rewriting aspects of their software that don't differentiate them from their competitors.

Code is expendable; developers aren't
Finally, companies should evaluate their software investments for what they are: short-term assets. The intellectual property value of any one version of a custom Web application is minimal. Far more valuable are the developers who built it, because they're the ones who will be asked to rewrite it in response to the ever-changing business and technology landscapes.

Google and Microsoft, among others, understand the value of hiring, retaining, and incentivising good developers, and they do it well. It's a shame that so many companies promote their best programming brains into needless middle-management positions or allow them to leave the field entirely, rather than retaining them for their value as developers.

Perhaps the biggest loss of the dotcom era is that, in the aftermath of the bubble, fewer American students than ever are pursuing computer science or information technology degrees. That's a shame, because while few Web sites of the last 10 years may have stood the test of time, the demand for Web software has never been greater.

Web applications, like all software, must be constantly refreshed as technology advances and business needs change. But that doesn't mean programming must be a Sisyphean task. For all the software that has fallen by the wayside, today's Web is far more powerful and advanced than the one of 10 years ago. If we want that progress to continue, it's up to employers to convince young workers that software development remains one of our fastest-paced and most vital industries.


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