I’d rather have a whale

April 8th, 2009 § 0 comments

The whole Twitter brouhaha impressed me particularly in one key aspect: how people who have no experience whatsoever in big system think they can give valid opinions about them (regardless of language or framework or platform used).

I won’t offend readers saying I do have extensive experience in the matter; also, I won’t say I have any knowledge beyond what a good software engineer should have. My current experience with the matter is centered around closely following the development of an application that recently surpassed 60 millions monthly page views, and which is also growing constantly each month.

This particular application is entirely written in Ruby on Rails and considering how much effort is needed to maintain, evolve and operate it, I have nothing but sympathy for the Twitter team. Keeping an application the size of Twitter online, with all the distributed complexity it implies, is laudable.

It’s even more impressive how people assume the Twitter code is shitty. Even if it was–and even assuming it is–criticizing it for that is still bullshit. Even for an application riddled with technical debt, the balance between that debt and the value delivered for the user–which is something even the Twitter detractors have to agree on–is a fundamental and sound business decision.

Martin Fowler talks eloquently about that balance in one of his recent articles:

The metaphor also explains why it may be sensible to do the quick and dirty approach. Just as a business incurs some debt to take advantage of a market opportunity developers may incur technical debt to hit an important deadline. The all too common problem is that development organizations let their debt get out of control and spend most of their future development effort paying crippling interest payments.

From my point of view, the fact that Twitter has experimented with other technologies, has benchmarked the application and has sought better solutions is a clear indicator that they are trying to fix their debts. Asking for more than that is a shallow display of arrogance and ignorance regarding how business is done and how real code is produced.

To freely and publicly admit to problems, trying to create a coherent discourse is something I respect. Saying things like “As far as I’m concerned, Twitter is a case-study in how Ruby on Rails does scale, even in their hands”, on the other hand, eliminates any possibility of a rational dialogue. The Rails community should be ashamed of its luminaries by now.

Programmers do not operate on ideal worlds. Until the people criticizing Twitter are able to show that they’ve done their homework dealing with the questions Twitter is facing, I’ll rather have the whale. Only proper for humans, after all.

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