Web Programming Languages and Frameworks are like Operating Systems and Editors
April 30, 2008
I’ve been doing some work recently with Facebook, building a Facebook app, and I have to admit that Facebook is a pretty well developed site. There is a lot of functionality. Things work pretty well, I’ve never gotten any errors while using the site. They’ve built a decent framework that allows people to develop their own apps for Facebook that work and feel like part of the rest of Facebook. It’s fast enough, although not blazingly fast. And it’s written in PHP.
I know PHP and know Ruby on Rails even better. If before Facebook came into existence, if someone approached me and explained what the idea for Facebook was, all the features they were planning on building, and they said they wanted to build it in PHP, I’d say you are nuts, building a site that complicated in PHP would be a nightmare. But obviously that wasn’t a problem for the developers who built Facebook.
People talk about the question “Do languages matter?”. You have some people expounding on the virtues of Lisp macros who will say absolutely and then you have others saying all languages are turing complete and there is basically no difference. Some people believe the Sapir-Whorf is true and applies to computer programming, others don’t. But at the end of the day, there are good web applications built in PHP, Ruby, Java, .Net, Python, Smalltalk, Cold Fusion, etc. and there are bad web applications built in all of those languages, including Ruby on Rails.
So what can be taken away from that observation is that languages matter to programmers, in the same way that operating systems and editors matter to programmers. You can be productive developing web applications with Java and IntelliJ on Windows, Ruby on Rails on Mac OS X or Common Lisp and Emacs on Linux. The important thing is to find which combination makes you the most productive and then be part of a team that shares that mindset. That’s not to say that all members of a team must use the same language, framework, OS and editor, but it is important for a team to share a common philosophy of software development. The language and framework that appeals to you individually is a strong indication of what your philosophy of software development is.
The fact is that I’ve found Ruby on Rails to be the best language and framework combination for me. If I am building a web application any level of complexity, I will be able to build it better and faster in Ruby on Rails than with PHP, Java or any other language and framework. But that applies to me and many other developers who have embraced Ruby on Rails, but not everyone and not for every web application. If you asked me to develop a web application in PHP instead of Ruby on Rails, that would be like asking Paul Graham to build a web application in Java using IntelliJ instead of Lisp and Emacs, or just as bad as the inverse, asking a Java developer to build a web application using Lisp and Emacs. I think in any of those cases, you’d end up with an inferior product than you would if you let each of those people use what they know and love best.
So based on that, from the perspective of a CTO trying to make a decision on which technology stack to adopt, you would say it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you attract good developers. The key is being able to put together a team of good developers, regardless of the language. But the choice of language does matter because of the community surrounding a language. For example, I would imagine that putting together a team of good Cold Fusion developers would be difficult. For Java or .Net, there is an abundance of developers, but the challenge will be sifting through that abundance to find the truly good ones. This is one area where I believe Ruby on Rails has an advantage. If you could somehow determine the number of total developers for each language and the number good developers for each language, I think you would see that although there are less Ruby on Rails developers, a much higher percentage of them are good developers. I believe Ruby on Rails has a higher Good-Developer-to-Developer ratio than Java, .Net or PHP, and if finding good developers is your goal, that is the number you should care about.