[This is a bit rambling / repetitive, sorry. I don’t have time to make it shorter, etc.]
Last year at FOWA I had a discussion with Paul Graham about programming and programmers in which we disagreed over the importance of knowing the fundamentals.
By this I mean the importance of knowing things down to the nuts and bolts level, to really understand what’s going on at the lower levels when you’re writing code. I used to think that sort of thing mattered a lot, but now I think it rarely does.
I well remember learning to program in AWK and being acutely aware of how resource intensive “associative arrays” (as we quaintly called them in those days) were, and knowing full well what was going on behind the scenes. I wrote a full Pascal compiler (no lex, no yacc) in the mid-80’s with Keith Rowe. If you haven’t done that, you really can’t appreciate the amount of computation that goes on when you compile a program to an executable. It’s astonishing. I did lots of assembly language programming, starting from age 15 or so, and spent years squeezing code into embedded environments, where a client might call to ask if you couldn’t come up with a way to reduce your executable code by 2 bytes so it would fit in their device.
But you know what? None of those skills really matter any more. Or they matter only very rarely.
The reason is that best practices have been worked out and incorporated into low-level libraries, and for the most part you don’t need to have any awareness at all of how those levels work. In fact it can be detrimental to you to spend years learning all those details if you could instead be learning how to build great things using the low-level libraries as black-box tools.
That’s the way the world moves in general. Successive generations get the accumulated wisdom of earlier generations packaged up for them. We used log tables, slide rules, and our heads, while our kids use calculators with hundreds of built-in functions. We learned to read analog 12-hour clocks, our kids learn to read digital clocks (so much easier!) and may not be able to read an analog clock until later. And it doesn’t matter. We buy a CD player (remember them?) or an iPod, and when it breaks you don’t even consider getting it “fixed” (remember that?). You just go out and buy another one. That’s because it’s cheaper and much faster and easier to just get a new one that has been put together by a machine than it is to have an actual human try to open the thing and figure out how to repair it. You can’t even (easily) open an iPod. And so the people who know how to do these things dwindle in number until there are none left. Like watch makers or the specialist knife sharpeners we have in Barcelona who ride around on motorcycles with their distinctive whistles, calling to people to bring down their blunt knives. And it doesn’t matter, at least from a technical point of view. Their brilliance and knowledge and hard-won experience has been encapsulated and put into machines and higher-level tools, or simply baked into society in smaller, more accurate and easier to digest forms. In computers it goes down into libraries and compilers and hardware. There’s simply no need for anyone to know how, learn how, or to bother, to do those sorts of things any more.
Note that I’m not saying it’s not nice to have your watch repaired by someone with a jeweler’s eyepiece or your knife or scissors sharpened in the street. I’m just noting the general progression by which knowledge inevitably becomes encapsulated.
In my discussion with Paul Graham, he argued that it was still important for tech founders to be great programmers at a low level. I argued that that’s not right. Sure, people like that are good to have around, but I don’t think you need to be that way and as I said I think it can even be detrimental because all that knowledge comes at a price (other knowledge, other experience).
I work with a young guy called Esteve (Hi Esteve!). He’s great at many levels, including the lower ones. He’s also a product of a new generation of programmers. They’re people who grew up only knowing object-oriented programming, only really writing in very high-level languages (not you Esteve! I mean that just in general), who think in those terms, and who instead of spending many years working with nuts and bolts spent the years working with newer high-level tools.
I think people like Esteve have a triple advantage over us dinosaurs. 1) They tend to use more powerful tools; 2) Because they use better tools, they are more comfortable and think more naturally in the terms of the higher-level abstractions their tools present them; and 3) they also have more experience putting those tools and methods to good use.
The experience gap widens at double speed, just as when a single voter changes side; the gap between the two parties increases by two votes. Even when the dinosaur modernizes itself and learns a few new tricks, you’re still way behind because the 25 year-old you’re working with (again, excluding Esteve) has never had to work at the nuts and bolts level. They think with the new paradigms and can put more general and more powerful tools directly into action. They don’t have to think about protocols or timeouts or dynamically resizing buffers or partial reads or memory management or data structures or error propogation. They simply think “Computer, fetch me the contents of that web page!” And most of the time it all just works. When it doesn’t, you can call in a gray-haired repair person or, more likely, just throw the busted tool away and buy another (or just get it free, in the case of Open Source software).
That’s real progress, and to insist that we should make the young suffer through all the stuff we had to learn in order to build all the libraries and compilers etc., that are now available to us all is just wrong. It’s wrong because it goes against the flow of history, because it’s counter-productive, and because it smacks of “I had to suffer through this stuff, walk barefoot to school in the snow, and therefore you must too.”
Some of the above will probably sound a bit abstract, but to me it’s not. I think it’s important to realize and accept. The fact that your kid can’t tie their shoelaces because they have velcro and have never owned a shoe with a lace is probably a good thing. You don’t know how to hunt your own food or start a fire, and it just doesn’t matter. The same goes for programming. The collective brilliance of generations of programmers is now built in to languages like Java, Python and Ruby, and into operating systems, graphics libraries, etc. etc., and it really doesn’t matter a damn if young people who are using those tools don’t have a clue what’s going on at the lower levels (as I said above, that’s probably a good thing). One day very few people will. The knowledge wont be lost. It’s just encapsulated into more modern environments and tools.
I’m writing all this down because I’ve been thinking about it on and off since FOWA, but also because of what I’m working on right now. I’m trying to modify 12K lines of synchronous Python code to use Twisted (an extraordinarily good set of asynchronous networking libraries written by a set of extraordinarily young and gifted programmers). The work is a bit awkward and three times I’ve not known how best to proceed in terms of design. Each time, Esteve has taken a look at the problem and quickly suggested a fairly clean way to tackle it. Desperate to cook up a way to think that he might not be that much smarter than I am, I’m forced into a corner in which I conclude that he has spent more time working with new tools (patterns, OO, a nice language like Python). So he looks at the world in a different way and naturally says “oh, you just do that”. Then I go do the routine work of making his ideas work – which is great by me, I get to learn in the best way, by doing. How nice to hire people who are better than you are.
That’s it. Encapsulation is inevitable. So you either have to embrace it or become a hand-wringing dinosaur moaning about the kids of today and how they no longer know the fundamentals. It’s not as though any of us could survive if we suddenly had to do everything from first principles (hunt, rub sticks together to make fire, etc). So relax. Enjoy it. The young are much better than we are because they grow up with better tools and they spend more time using them. It’s not enough to learn them when you’re older, even if you can do that really fast. You’ll never catch up on the experience front.
But it sure is fun to try.