Keeping Fun in Perspective
Visual Basic mixes it in.
Sometimes, what's exciting or satisfying for a software developer (or magazine editor), isn't so great or satisfying for the people who ultimately use the end product.
I was reminded of this after reading a recent blog by Rocky Lhotka. Wrote Rocky:
"I think the underlying problem [with software development] is that building business software to solve users' problems is ultimately boring. Most of us get into computers to express our creative side, not to assemble components into working applications."
I think there's a lot of truth to what Rocky asserts here. VSM is geared toward the down-in-the-trenches business developer, but we, too, occasionally aspire to accomplish more in our magazine. For example, Rocky's blog reminded me of the Black Belt column that used to run in VSM (when the magazine was known as Visual Basic Programmer's Journal).
We launched this column with Bill Storage and Matt Curland as coauthors, shortly after the launch of VB5. Topics ranged from modifying vtables with AddressOf, to extending the Implements keyword; we were excited as a magazine to be showing off cutting-edge techniques to developers. This was partly because we felt we were helping to establish VB's bona fides as a "serious programming language." Visual Basic had long borne the stigma of being a "toy" language and a tool not quite suitable to the enterprise, and we were proud that this column and our magazine were helping to reverse some of that prejudice. Over time, several respected authors contributed to the column, including Dan Appleman, Karl Peterson, and Jason Bock, among many others. But for as long as the column ran, the shadow of Matt and Bill loomed large.
The column proved extremely popular. To this day, people I meet at conferences and other industry events frequently mention the column, asking if we ever intend to reinstate it. Despite its popularity, then and now, in its day the column was sometimes greeted with skepticism by other authors at the magazine, and even some readers. I suspect Matt and Bill felt the column's detractors just didn't "get it," and that was OK by them. They provided the code in the form of self-contained controls that could simply be dropped into a solution and used. You didn't have to understand how the code behind their solutions worked; you merely had to understand how to use the finished components. Well—and you also needed to refrain from messing with the code they provided, if you were merely mortal.
A few years later, after the column had been discontinued, Bill expressed some regret about the articles, telling me he felt they set many developers up to fail. He said he was still receiving periodic e-mails from new developers downloading these solutions, and he felt that in some significant ways, the columns and downloadable code were leading some developers astray. He was still proud of the work he and Matt had done in exploring the boundaries of VB, but the solutions themselves were difficult, and not suited for use in everyday business applications because of their complexity.
What makes Visual Basic so impressive—and that includes its current, more power-user–oriented version—is the way it lets you concentrate on the business at hand. As Rocky Lhotka points out, wiring together business logic and other pieces of functionality isn't the most exciting task in the world, but it is the nuts-and-bolts work on which all companies are founded. It is the "real work" associated with development.
As a magazine, we're sometimes tempted by bright and shiny baubles ourselves, by the latest and greatest technologies making the rounds at the moment. There are times when these technologies are worth covering, of course, but it's equally important for us not to be seduced by the glamour of new technologies at the expense of getting real work done. What we do as a magazine is show you how to wire up that business code faster and more easily. This approach won't make the magazine more interesting to our spouses, but we hope it will help you get your job done better, faster, and with a whole lot less effort. As editor in chief, I cannot imagine a greater ambition on which to found a magazine.
How do you balance being productive vs. choosing projects that challenge you? Post a comment and let us know.
Patrick Meader is editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine.