Early in September, while the first drafts of this article hit the administration console of WordPress, a friend of mine invited me to attend a projection of yet another Apple keynote, beer and pizza included; the usual hipstanerd package, in the office of some app development agency in the city of Bern. Surprisingly enough (or not,) Microsoft chose to host its online .NET Conference at exactly the same day and time.
A telling story of Apple vs. Microsoft, once again, clashing in my professional life, offering me another possibility to branch the future of my professional universe with a simple decision.
Let’s start with the mandatory dictionary quote (after all, this is a license I can take, given that this is the first issue of this magazine.)
hype | hʌɪp | informal
noun [mass noun]
extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion: his first album hit the stores amid a storm of hype.
• [count noun] a deception carried out for the sake of publicity: is his comeback a hype?
verb [with object]
promote or publicize (a product or idea) intensively, often exaggerating its benefits: an industry quick to hype its products | they were hyping up a new anti-poverty idea.
1920s (originally US in the sense ‘short-change, cheat’, or ‘person who cheats etc.’): of unknown origin.
In my own personal dictionary, I cannot avoid seeing Hype as anything else than a factor of stress. Not just another element of our developer culture, but an actual trigger of anxiety, burnout, Fear Of Missing Out (or “FOMO,”) and other niceties that are plaguing the minds of my colleagues.
In many ways, Hype spreads like cancer. It often starts unnoticed, spreading and multiplying in otherwise sane hosts, and by the time it is discovered it is usually too late.
Hype increases job instability, it feeds anxieties, and sustains a rather shallow cohort of trainers, consultants, businesses, online courses and whatnot, venting platitudes and marketing dogma to whoever is worried enough to lose their jobs. It is a source of antagonism, decrepitude, and trolling, all of which our craft could genuinely avoid for the greater good. How many otherwise competent workers have been fired for not being “on the cutting edge” anymore? How many dollars were spent in training teams for technologies that simply disappeared a few years later? How many rewrites have happened to take an otherwise fine working system into a new paradigm, dismantling teams, introducing bugs, and killing revenue?
And all of that, for what?
I have been victim of Hype many times during my career. Sometimes, I have to admit, I actually was one of the trolls feeding the anxiety of my colleagues with the technology choices I made. I even was one of the trainers, one of the consultants, and Hype has also paid my rent to a certain extent.
I can totally understand Hype as a phenomenon, and I can relate to its side effects. Then, who am I to judge? I fed it. It grew up on me. After all, the web has Hype in 1997. Later .NET was Hype in 2002. Also the iPhone was Hype in 2009. Docker was Hype in 2015. The four major technologies that have shaped my career, all touted as the world-changing things that they actually were. And at the time of this writing, Serverless is Hype and the cycle goes on.
As I said, I can understand Hype. But as a wise friend of mine once said, “the fact that one understands something does not imply that one has to agree with it.” And Hype, I do not agree with it anymore.
For the sake of memory and history, here go more Hype-compatible terms from the past 30 years: CASE Tools, CORBA, RUP, SOAP, MDA, Software Factories, Semantic Web, OLPC, and (of course!) Augmented Reality, in both of its moments of glory, 2009 and 2017.
What is “Hype”? How can one define it? Maybe I should define it through its opposite, through its counterpart: the “Mainstream”.
If Hype is the future, the Mainstream is the past.
If Hype is unstability, the Mainstream is stability.
If Hype is fun, the Mainstream is boring.
If only it was so simple. For Hype is, maybe, just another acronym, like there are so many in our industry, one meaning Hyperbolic Yet Passing Effusion. Of course, we all know People Can’t Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms or PCMCIA – yet another Hype technology back in the 90s.
(The astute reader will have noticed the absence of the word “Legacy” in this text. It is no coincidence, as once again, that word is more closely related with subjective visions of evolution than actual facts. Otherwise, go tell that poor soul working in a datacenter near Zurich Paradeplatz that their COBOL banking system, running flawlessly and profitably since the 70’s, is “Legacy.”)
Should we avoid Hype? This author says yes, for sanity, although it is very simple to realize that for good or worse this cannot be done; we simply cannot fight against it. We will not be able to make it disappear. Can we fight against Vogue, Versace, Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour all saying unanimously that, let’s say, blue garments are the new “it” this season?
Hype is very often related to fashion, a concept itself related to taste, a concept subjective by definition. It is actually funny to consider that Hype is highly subjective and irrational, given the tendency in geek circles to value objectivity as the guiding rule for all decisions in the world. Yet, more than once, a technical decision is simply guided by this angel of death called Hype, flying its wings once again in a meeting room somewhere.
(The irony of the subjective/objective dichotomy does not stop there, as the heated discussions about “Programming as Art” tend to show. But this will be the subject of a future edition of this magazine.)
Maybe the problem is that Hype is devoid of substance; is it the case, though? Can one always discuss Hype in rational terms? If Hype is fashion, and thus subjective, and thus irrational, can it contain substance?
Clearly, history shows that yes, Hype can sometimes be full of substance, with more or less the same probability of being full of excrement (the editors of this magazine are keen in using the most appropriate language to avoid hurting any susceptibilities.)
What is then the magic substance that makes Hype stand the test of time? Is it Market Share? Is it the availability of Conferences and Documentation? Is it a healthy mix of FOSS (Free and Open Source) and Commercial projects around it? Is it a large number of answered questions in Stack Overflow with a score higher than 1400?
Instead of fighting against windmills like the Quijote, here is a wish: can we stop feeding Hype and prevent it from spreading like a cancer in our production systems? Could we stop using Hype-compatible technology for our next application server, mobile app, healthcare product, and instead insist that proven, old, Mainstream, boring technologies be used instead? The author of this text hopes so, and fervently for that matter, that one day sanity will guide the CTOs of the world into the creation of the next disruption using a 30 year old language, and a framework recently updated to version 19.
(To be honest, this very blog encompasses that vision, using a decidedly Mainstream – slash boring slash stable – platform like WordPress, supported by the venerable quartet of PHP, MariaDB, Apache, and FreeBSD. But I hope that the mention of PHP in these lines will not alienate our readership.)
Hype can, should and must be kept away from the production process of critical systems. This will not always be the case. But one can always dream of a better world.
In the meantime, I chose to attend the .NET Conference – and I do not regret the choice. Being 18 years old, C# is mature enough now for being considered Mainstream. Even the “classic” .NET Framework has been declared Mainstream – or was it Legacy instead? Regarding my friends, well, I will have a beer with them tomorrow anyway, to celebrate the release of this very magazine.