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About the right tools for the job

Some time ago I was involved in a running debate about whether we should be using Ruby on Rails rather than the Java stack (junkyard?) that we were using. At the time, I did not really participate in the discussion except to note that everything seemed to be at least 5 times too difficult. I had this strong intuition that there were so many moving parts that that was the problem. The application itself was not really that hard. My assertions really ticked some of my colleagues off; for which I apologize; sort of.

I guess that I come from a tradition of high-level programming languages, by high level, I would say that I would consider LISP to be a medium level language, and Prolog is slightly better. I would say that it is a pretty common theme of my career that I end up having to defend the position of using high-level tools. I have gotten a number of arguments, ranging from "it will not be efficient enough" to "how do you expect to find enough XX programmers?". I used to try to answer these questions, because I thought that they are raised in good faith. Most of them, with the possible exception of the last, have all but been made moot by progress in silicon and compiler technology.

Anyway, afterwards, I decided to take a more serious look at RoR. I picked up a book on it, and followed along. At the end of three days, I had managed to replicate perhaps 60-70% of the functionality of the site I had been working on; and I became furious.

If we had used RoR at the beginning, I began to think, it is entirely possible that I would still have a share in a company that was going to go places. Not that RoR is perfect; far from it. For example, when something goes wrong with your Ruby program a neophyte has very little support. And Ruby is a pretty weird language. But, to replicate 60% of an application that had taken 5 man years of developer effort in two days really pissed me off.

You see, one key reason that everything fell apart was that we had a competitor; a competitor who got out into the market before we did. It is hard to be sure, but we did not get the feeling that they had started before us even. What they did do was use a much easier to get going technology (PHP). So, maybe PHP does not scale; but so what? The first to market can gain enough time to re-implement should the idea prove sufficiently interesting.

So, the next time someone says that they can't find programmers, or some other reason for not using advanced techniques; my response is likely to be more robust. If we need to train people, then so be it. Using technology that lets you get going quickly can make the difference between life or death for a startup.

I may even start pushing some of the languages that I have been involved in developing...

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