Mastering Technology

Things move fast in the IT industry. Half of the technologies I use today didn’t exist ten years ago. There’s a constant push to switch to new technologies.  But when it comes to technologies, I’m kind of conservative. I like proven technologies.

The thing that makes me conservative is that mastering a technology takes a lot longer that we think.

Most advocates of new technologies massively underestimated the learning curve. Sure, you get something working quickly. But truely understanding a new technology takes years.

Take object-oriented programming. On the surface it’s easy to grasp quickly and become productive. But it took the industry something like 20 years to figure out that inheritance isn’t such a great idea. The result is that early object-oriented systems overused inheritance hoping it will favor reuse, whereas it just led to hard mainteance.

The same holds for instance for the idea of distributed objects. It’s easy to grasp and appealing . Yet it took the industry decades to realize that abstracting remote boundaries is a flawed idea. We instead need to explicitly embrace and expose asynchronous API.

Another one of my favorite easy-to-grasp-but-hard-to-master technology is object-relational mappers (e.g. Hibernate). 10 years of experience and I’m still struggling with it as soon as the mapping isn’t entirely trivial.

Want another example? XA Transaction. Updating a database row and sending a message seems to be the poster child for XA Transactions. Well, it turns out that this simple scenario is already problematic. When it didn’t work I learned that I was experiencing the classic “XA 2-PC race-condition“.

There are lots of new technologies being developed right now, like distributed log systems, container schedulers, web framework. I perfectly understand why they are being developed and what problems they supposedly solve.

But don’t try to convince me that they are silver bullets. Every technology choice is a trade-off because you can never fully abstract the underlying complexity away. There’s a price somewhere. Things will break in unexpected way and nobody knows why. Performance will be hard to figure out. Subtle misuse of the technology will only be detected later and be hard to correct. It will take time to figure these things out.

At the end it’s all about risk management. If the technology might provide a strategic advantage, we can talk. The investment might be worth it. But if it’s not even strategic, I would seriously challenge if the risk of using new technologies is worth it.


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