Brian's Waste of Time

Sun, 15 Apr 2007

Erm, no, not really...

David says, "Rather than just sit around idle waiting for some vendor to fix your problems, you get the unique chance of being a steward of your own destiny," in reaction to Alex (of Twitter) saying Ruby is slow and Rails has no way to talk to several databases. A particular reaction to David's statement is where it went from yawn to what!?

Robert asserted that "when you are trying to build a business you don't have the luxury of digging through a ton of source code and then try to figure out the where the problems are and make changes." I disagree. You don't have the luxury of doing so, you have the requirement to do so. To put it simply, if you rely on a particular piece of software, and you need something changed, then you need it to be changed, and that is that. It is up to you.

Now, just because it is up to you doesn't mean you need to go implement the fix. Heck, you probably cannot even do it yourself unless the library is both open source and openly developed. If development is closed, your "option" is generally to throw money at the people who wrote the bug to make said bug go away.

If on the other hand you do have the option of fixing it yourself, you still rarely have to. An awful lot of the time merely pointing out the problem to folks already involved with the project will lead to it getting resolved. If just pointing it out won't get it fixed fast enough for you, it is downright shocking how many people will let you pay them to write software, so you can just pay someone to do it. If you don't have the funds or access to the information you need, you can play weird PR games to "force" them to do it (this actually works for security related stuff, frequently). If all else fails, you just fix the damned thing. That is about it: 1) ask nicely, 2) ask nicely with dollars on top, 3) threaten or bluster, 4) get sued by Nike, er, I mean, just do it.

The fact of the matter is that you need something changed in a library you use. You use this library, presumably, because it saves you a bunch of work. So you have to do a little work to still save you a bunch more work. (You might, alternately, decide that the amount of work you have to do to fix it is greater than the amount you saved, in which case you accept you made a bad call, and go do the right thing.)

Now, a key to understanding this is to realize that the people who wrote this library that is saving you a a bunch of work did it to save themselves some work. Frequently others chipped in as well. Shockingly, over time, you wind up with something like this, for example,

brianm@golem:~$ nc -v 80
DNS fwd/rev mismatch: != [] 80 (http) open
Connection: close

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Sun, 15 Apr 2007 05:56:30 GMT
Server: Apache/1.3.37 (Unix) mod_gzip/ mod_fastcgi/2.4.2 \
        mod_auth_passthrough/1.8 mod_log_bytes/1.2 mod_bwlimited/1.4 \
        FrontPage/ mod_ssl/2.8.28 OpenSSL/0.9.7a PHP-CGI/0.1b
X-Powered-By: PHP/4.4.4
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html


where a lot of folks contributed to apache, mod_gzip, mod_auth_passthrough, mod_log_bytes, mod_bwlimited, mod_ssl, OpenSSL, and PHP, so that the combined efforts have enabled a blog. Almost all of them said "oh shit, I need [foo], and [bar] doesn't do it" so went and did it. For the economics of it, go read Yochai Benkler. The gist is "you get out more than you put in."

But, you say, "Gee, I would love to write acts_as_infinitely_scalable but that pesky DHH guy won't let me change things in Rails, only the 'core team' get to do that." First off, that ain't true, they accept patches and have a good record of applying them. Second off, damned straight it is easier for them to do it -- they earned that trust. (Actually, acts_as_infinitely_scalable would probably be declined in favor of making it a plugin.)

They earned that trust for a number of reasons, but I will bet you pennies to bricks of gold that the majority got there because they relied on the project and needed more control over it. Maybe they rely on it because they are consultants who use it as advertising, possibly they need control over it in order to build up their personal ego, not infrequently they just needed increased responsibility in order to become better programmers, but most likely (I am not going to go find the citations, this is a blog not a journal) they were building products which relied on it. I doubt a single one thought about it in terms of "I need more control over [baz]," but in the end, that is what it was.

If you rely on [something], and you see it needs [something else], you do a quick calculation in your head to decide if the value of [something] is greater than the cost of [something else] and either do [something else] for [something] or ditch [something] in favor of [yet another thing] that already does [something else].

Figuring out the value and/or cost of [something], [something else], and [yet another thing] can be a pain sometimes, but that is why we get paid the big bucks :-)

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