Hello World Fallacy

2012-08-14 19:50

These days you cannot make more than few steps on the Web before tripping over yet another wonderful framework, technology, library, platform… or even language. More often that not they are promising heaven and stars: ease of use, flexibility, scalability, performance, and so on. Most importantly, they almost always emphasize how easy it is to get started and have working, tangible results – sometimes even whole apps – in very short time.

In many cases, they are absolutely right. With just the right tools, you can make some nice stuff pretty quickly. True, we’re still far from a scenario where you simply choose features you’d like to have, with them blending together automatically – even if some folks make serious leaps in that direction.
But if you think about it for a moment, it’s not something that we actually want, for reasons that are pretty obvious. The less effort is needed to create something, the less value it presents, all other things being equal. We definitely don’t expect to see software development reduced into rough equivalent of clicking through Windows wizards, because everything produced like that would be just hopelessly generic.

But think how easy it would be to get started with that

And thus we come to the titular issue which I took liberty in calling a “Hello World” Fallacy. It occurs when a well-meaning programmer tries out a new piece of technology and finds how easy it is to do simple stuff in it. Everything seems to fall into place: tutorials are clear, to the point and easy to follow; results appear quickly and are rather impressive; difficulties or setbacks are few and far between. Everything just goes extremely well.. What is the problem, then?

The problem lies in a sort of “halo effect” those early successes are likely to create. While surveying a new technology, it’s extremely tempting to look at the early victories as useful heuristic for evaluating the solution as a whole. We may think the way particular tech makes it easy to produce relatively simple apps is a good indicator of how it would work for bigger, more complicated projects. It’s about assuming a specific type of scalability: not necessarily tied to performance of handling heavy load of thousands of users, but to size and complexity of the system handling it.

Point is, your new technology may not really scale all that well. What makes it easy to pick up, among other things, is how good it fits to the simple use cases you will typically exercise when you are just starting out. But this early adequacy is not an evidence for ability to scale into bigger, more serious applications. If anything, it might constitute a feasible argument for the contrary. Newbie-friendliness often goes against long-term usability for more advanced users; compare, for example, the “intuitive” Ribbon UI introduced in relatively recent version Microsoft Office to its previous, much more powerful and convenient interface. While I don’t stipulate it’s a pure zero-sum game, I think catering to beginners and experts alike is surely more difficult than addressing the needs of only one target audience. The former is definitely a road less traveled.

When talking about software libraries or frameworks, the ‘expert’ would typically refer to developer using the tech for large and long-term project. They are likely to explore most of the crooks and crannies, often hitting brick walls that at first may even appear impassable. For them, the most important quality for a software library is its “workaroundability”: how well it performs at not getting in the way between programmer and job done, and how hackable it is – i.e. susceptible to stretching its limits beyond what authors originally intended.

This quality is hardly evident when you’ve only done few casual experiments with your shiny new package. General experience can help a great deal with arriving at unbiased conclusion, and so can the explicit knowledge about the whole issue. While it’s beyond my limited powers to help you significantly to the former, I can at least gently point to the latter.

Happy hacking!



3 comments for post “Hello World Fallacy”.
  1. viroos:
    August 19th, 2012 o 15:58

    I think it’s all about “transparency” – http://catb.org/esr/writings/taoup/html/transparencychapter.html but “Discoverability” is important also.

  2. Kos:
    August 23rd, 2012 o 0:49

    The exact opposite exists:

    A tech is well-developed and very useful, but halfway through the project you discover that you have no idea how to do something you-thought-was-basic with it, and there are no docs, no examples and only some dirty workarounds on StackOverflow.

    You swear, you get mad, you ask yourself why on earth you ever decided on that tech… And then you calm down, use the workaround and get the stuff rolling nicely.
    (This is usually good because big techs tend to have their value, even if they annoy with occasional lacks here and there).

    Still, the problem likes to recur and is likely to bring you the same existential crisis over and over again. Hence, I’d call this the “Goodbye, World” Fallacy.

  3. Xion:
    August 27th, 2012 o 10:39

    @Kos: This is what I call Expert Bias. You can encounter all sort of different issues with your tech but since you somehow manage to fix them, and you know how to avoid them in the future, you tend to selectively forget them. Then, when someone asks you whether you can recommend the tech, you’ll say “Sure!”.

    And the poor guy needs to solve the same problems again :)

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