Dustin Ingram

WritingSpeakingGithub

Introduction

I spent the other night talking with a close friend of mine about his new job and some of the work he’s been doing. He explained to me that a recent project of his was to find a way to plot some data using JavaScript and HTML5. Nothing incredibly complex, just simple line graphs with some customization. However, as he proudly explained, his solution was to create the entire thing from scratch – every line of code, every piece of CSS.

The programmer in me had an immediate knee-jerk reaction to this. Why re-invent the wheel when plenty of other people have done it before you? Creating charts and graphs with JavaScript and HTML5 is a solved problem: it’s been done before, and many times. Why waste your time creating another solution to the problem, especially one that’s bound to be less flexible or have more flaws than an existing solution?

My initial attempt to solve this problem would be this:

  1. Find a couple existing libraries that were created to solve this problem;
  2. Check out a few examples, read some documentation for each, and generally get a feel for how each is implemented;
  3. Maybe try a proof-of-concept for one or two, and then settle on one.

To me, the amount of time I would need to invest to create something even remotely comparable would outweigh the amount of time it would take to find an existing solution, modify it to suit my needs, or even scrap an existing solution for another one. It seemed ludicrous to me do anything else.

A realization

The more I thought about this, though, the more I realized the value in doing it his way. Aside from the intrinsic knowledge gained by re-implementing a system (which has been shown over and over again), the real benefit is this:

If no one ever builds anything new, we never get anything new.

We see this all the time. Take Bootstrap, for example. Did we need another front-end framework? Most would say we didn’t. Is it the best we’ve got now? Definitely – can you even name any of it’s predecessors? What about Netflix? It seems as if nearly every service they create is homebrewed specifically for their purposes. Could they have become what they are just by using commercial, off-the-shelf options? Maybe, but I would argue probably not.

The problem

Here’s the problem with all of this. Take a look at this article recently featured on HN titled “The best programmers are the quickest to Google”. The focus is basically that all the relevant, most granular pieces of whatever project you’re building have already been written, and all you have to do is search Google for it. Here’s an excerpt:

If you need to implement something in code and it’s not cutting edge technology, Google it first. If someone else hasn’t already done it yet, you’re either Googling it wrong or way off in what you’re trying to accomplish.

The issue here is the thought that “We’ll always be good with what we’ve got.” If this mindset permeates us as developers (some might say it already has), we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Everything is a remix. Nobody will create anything new, ever.

Fortunately, there are some of us that reject this, that realize that the long term educational benefit, and net creativity this fosters within our community, outweighs the costs of doing it the hard way. These are the people that will change the game. These are the people which will create the tools of the future.