Editor's Note

A Mort by Any Other Name …

A take on one reason why VB is getting overlooked.

VSM received an overwhelming number of responses to the question I posed a couple months ago: "Is VB the Least Among Equals?" (Editor's Note, May 2008). Readers were nearly unanimous in saying yes, although the reasons for thinking so varied. Some blamed the code-sample inequality on market forces; some, on Microsoft; and others, on a combination of both.

Of those who said the blame lies with Microsoft's attitude toward VB developers, a couple pointed to Microsoft's notion of personae for the various .NET languages: The lack of samples stemmed in part from the fact that that Microsoft viewed VB developers as a "bunch of Morts."

Morts? Microsoft has long nurtured the notion of archetypal users for its various products, including its developer languages. The archetypal personae for its developer products are Mort (VB), Elvis (C#), and Einstein (C++). Eric Lippert, a software design engineer at Microsoft, discussed the personae and their roles in a blog post in March 2004. He noted that Mort was the line-of-business developer; Elvis, the professional app developer; and Einstein, the "expert on both low-level bit-twiddling and high-level object-oriented architectures." Wrote Eric: "Mort comes to a development position via his line of business -- he's an expert on frobnicating widgets, and one day realizes that his widget-tracking spreadsheets could benefit from a little VBA magic, so he picks up enough VBA to get by."

From the outset, the Mort persona generated resentment.

I remember a conversation I had with one of our regular columnists who hated the name Mort because he felt it demeaned VB developers. Elvis and Einstein conveyed stardom and intelligence; Mort conveyed the notion that VB developers were less-competent, less-knowledgeable developers. In the same blog posting, Eric wrote: "Mort doesn't understand OOP, but for the kinds of problems Mort solves, he doesn't need to know what inheritance is or how polymorphism works."

Admittedly, that's a five-year-old post. But contrast that sentence with this snippet from the MSDN documentation on .NET Component Authoring: "Visual Basic Note: Visual Basic programmers should be familiar with object-based programming concepts, although it is not necessary to have a thorough understanding of inheritance."

If it isn't necessary to understand inheritance in VB, it isn't necessary to understand it in any other .NET language. But VB programmers rate this special mention -- because of the perception of Mort's coding abilities. The perception that Mort is less capable is one widely shared, inside and outside Microsoft.

In August 2005, Phil Haack wrote in a blog called, "Does Mort Know We're Talking About Him Behind His Back?": "Mort is a creation of arrogant software developers (I don't exclude myself from this group) used to lump together and define the quintessential ‘average' developer."

As a longtime reader of Paul Vick's blog, I have no reason to believe that he looks down on VB developers. Indeed, he's argued that "most people are usually Mort, Elvis, and Einstein all at the same time, depending on what they're doing". But he is also forthright in acknowledging the negative stereotypes associated with the Mort persona, going so far as to suggest Microsoft should replace it with a new persona: "I'd like to propose hiring [Ben Franklin] as our new persona. Ben … is a pretty pragmatic guy and a bit of a polymath, a jack-of-all-trades … In short, he does what most VB programmers do: he multi-tasks like crazy, solving problems wherever he goes."

I understand the sentiment behind renaming the VB persona, but there's a name more onerous than Mort to overcome: Basic. Fair or not, the language's BASIC roots are tightly wound into the identity and perception of the Mort persona, and these will be difficult to shake off. The blunt truth: The world at large will never give the language or its developers their due if Microsoft itself can't manage the feat. That is where the real change must come from.

Talk Back: Do you think Microsoft's developer personae have any real impact? Tell me at vsmedit@1105media.com or post your comments on this article.

About the Author

Patrick Meader is editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.

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Reader Comments:

Thu, Jan 15, 2009 Felix De Herrera

I think VB.Net is a great language. I started out as a C++ programmer and eventually discovered VB and I couldn't be happier (I code in C# as well.) It's rather funny to talk with the C# elite types. As a former C++ programmer, I see C# as rather a C++/Java wanna-be. And who uses only one language nowdays anyway? I would like to see the best of VB.Net and the best of C# combined into a new singular language and do away with both VB and C#. Now that would be cool!

Tue, Nov 18, 2008 Karl E. Peterson

C'mon folks. Don't you find it humiliating to be asking Microsoft to take you seriously these days? Microsoft expressed the ultimate disrespect to VB developers back in 2000-2001, as the devastation known as VFred came into focus. From that point onward, no one can argue with even a shred of self-respect that the language was officially destined for anything but disposable efforts. If they can introduce gratuitous incompatabilities with zeal, including such gross offenses as redefined fundamental datatypes and recycled keywords, why would anyone seriously still be asking for R.E.S.P.E.C.T. almost eight years later? When you're in an abusive relationship, move on! Or, just BOGU, eh? *shrug*

Mon, Nov 17, 2008

mort doesn't need to understand e = mC2 to blow stuff up...
While Elvis and Einstien are busy doing drugs and pontificating...Mort has quietly been solving problems in the company - and gaining popularity for it!

Fri, Jul 18, 2008 Speednet NJ

Perhaps Microsoft should officially nename the product "VB", to cut it off from its "BASIC" roots.

The real crime these days is the lack of VB in .NET books being written. Even the venerable ASP.NET Unleashed has relegated the VB code to the CD. (The last copy of it I will buy until it's restored to prominence).

Ironically, VB is a much more expressive language, making it better for code samples. VB is no less "serious" of a language, and no less capable, than C#.

Wed, Jun 18, 2008 Dianne West Coast

Being a long-time VB developer, I read your editor's note with great interest. I agree with how the overall attitude towards VB developers is reflected in the persona. But let’s not stop with a new persona name, it’s time for the developer personas to truly reflect the audience. I vote for the next persona to be Kathy, Jen or maybe even Dianne!

Thu, Jun 12, 2008 Scott Minneapolis

What people think of me is not something I worry about. I make a good living using VB, and am self-employed. People working for corporations using any language have my sympathy. I have freedom!

Thu, Jun 12, 2008 Mort Midwest

I would be considered a Mort but don't understand lack of samples. Given the definition of Morts we want and need samples. The jack of all trades is generally looking for a quick fix, more than the best overall code. We are generally working on Excel and Access bits and pieces to solve small but real problems in our departments.

Thu, Jun 12, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

I would be considered a Mort but don't understand lack of samples. Given the definition of Morts we want and need samples. The jack of all trades is generally looking for a quick fix, more than the best overall code. We are generally working on Excel and Access bits and pieces to solve small but real problems in our departments.

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