A Mort by Any Other Name …
A take on one reason why VB is getting overlooked.
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 email@example.com or post your comments on this article.
Patrick Meader is editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.