Use Imperfect Tools

Tuesday, March 17, 2015 · 4 min read

As I look back on programs I’ve written, I almost always notice that the most successful are the hacks. The ones whose source code is spaghetti, the ones which consist of patches upon patches, and not the ones where I painstakingly mapped out a beautiful API.

I speak of such monstrosities as alchemy, an IRC bot to play Little Alchemy collaboratively in IRC. is almost fully contained in a single while loop, and important game functions are nested so deep that they must be indented more than 80 characters to be valid Python. alchemy might be one of my most successful software projects if measured by total amount of happiness brought to users.

Speaking of IRC bots, the jokebot skeleton code introduced in a previous post is probably the most-forked of my projects, giving rise to 3 derivative bots within a week of its first commit. jokebot was written with no heed for efficiency, and so the unpatched jokebot was a big fat memory hog.

I also speak of bouncy, a screensaver I wrote over the course of a couple of hours for no good reason, which has been adorning my mom’s Mac every 10 minutes for the past two years. I have no idea what bouncy‘s source looks like, but I do recall abusing nested NSArrays because Xcode didn’t let me create a new class.

I speak of Snapin8r, which began as a Pythonic mess, was then ported to JavaScript line-by-line, and then heavily patched as bug reports rolled in. Most things are handled by one giant if/elif chain in a for loop. Again, Snapin8r is used by a disproportionately large number of people considering how shaky the entire thing is.

And I speak of miscellaneous hacked-together Scratch projects that have, over the years, accumulated dozens of “remixes” as people ran into them and used their code for amazing derivative works.

I do not speak of things like nearley, which despite hundreds of commits by several authors, has only one legitimate dependency on npm. Or, for that matter, any of my other well-organized projects on Github.

Perhaps there’s a reason for this. As logical people, programmers instinctively build cathedrals, not bazaars. “If we get it right the first time,” we say, “we’ll have a good foundation and won’t have any showstopper bugs.” And then we spend a few weeks building up these “foundations” and then release monoliths.

But, as I’ve observed, that’s not how effective software gets created. The best software gets used as it’s being developed. The way it’s used affects its development, so that instead of just a theoretical curiosity designed to be perfect and modular, the program solves real-world problems from day 1. The best software begins as a funny IRC bot or hackey Bash script.

And so the lesson I want to teach myself by posting this post is that the most important thing isn’t to pick the perfect APIs, tools, libraries, frameworks, algorithms, and languages. The most important thing is to just start writing code.

This is really hard.

Even selecting a language for a new project is hard. I want my project to be fast, but C is too low-level. Scheme would probably be the best choice algorithmically. Should I use Racket or Chicken? Racket seems more documented, but it doesn’t compile to native code cleanly. Chicken has yucky documentation, and I don’t like Chicken’s package manager. Maybe I should do it in Python? But I hate Python. Hang on, I’ve been meaning to learn Haskell for a while, now. Wait, no, I/O in Haskell is hard, and I’ll need a good POSIX interface for this project.

Speaking of which, how should I accept input? Stdin? File name? In what format? JSON? YAML? I don’t know how to parse JSON in Scala yet. Actually, maybe my program would be better as a service hosted over HTTP?

How about command-line arguments? Does Rust have a good option parser? Will I have to write it myself? I probably won’t be able to write an option parser that’s as efficient as industry-standards. Parsing is hard. Maybe I should use JavaScript; I already know how to use nomnom.

But if it’s in JavaScript, I can bypass all this and create it as a sleek, intuitive, and beautiful GUI in the browser. Then again, I want my project to be fast…

I think I’ve made my point: you can spend as long as you wish trying to choose the right tool. The truth, of course, is that there is no “right tool”. In fact, whatever tool you pick, you’re going to hit a limitation at some point. It’s reality. So instead of spending ages choosing the right tool, just pick the one that feels right and get some code written. Imperfect code is always more useful than no code. You should think about interfacing and efficiency second.

Ok, fine, I’m going to regret saying that. There’s a very good argument to be made for thinking about the architecture of a project before starting on it. It leads to clean, maintainable code. It minimizes the amount of refactoring drudgery.

But I think all those things are secondary to actually having a working prototype. Yes, you’re going to run into painful distribution issues—it’s happened to me, and it was annoying enough to make me give up on the project. But the open-source world came to the rescue, and someone forked and continued it. What matters is that I put my idea into code and gave it to the world.

So my promise to myself—as of publishing this post—is to spend less time debating tools and more time using them. This means forcing myself to consciously use imperfect tools, which might cause mild internal bleeding. Let’s see how long I survive.

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