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Software Fashion

[Oct 7, 2003] Software Fashion.

Like any industry, the software world suffers its own fashions. We often see new technology bound onto the software stage with a great fanfare. "Everybody's talking about it! Digital Code Scrubbing is the future! All code should be scrubbed!" Then, after a year or two, the new technology quietly skulks away into the fashion graveyard, when people begin to realise that the technology just hadn't delivered on its many inflated promises (as demonstrated by Britney, our sexy young model over on the left).

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As you’d probably expect, fashions are most obvious in the fashion industry. But, today, the software industry is as much a fashion industry as an engineering one. Marketing budgets are huge and are often larger than the budget to develop the software in the first place. When there's not a budget (in the case of freeware) there's also "freehype".

Software fashions get their own little forums on websites such as Javalobby and TheServerSide (TSS), and often invoke religious arguments about the scope of the application of the technology.

Some fashions create lots of small victims and others a few big victims. There’s a perceived inverse relationship between quantity and size of the SFV. Generally the more people that buy into a fashion, the less of a fashion victim you feel. This is of course wrong. A "big" victim is in fact someone who has been royally taken in by the more dubious aspects of the fashion. The more ludicrous the fad, the bigger the victim.

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Another characteristic of IT fashions is zeal. Its proponents often replace reason with faith. Fashion is a 'must have', 'of course it's better', 'everybody else is doing it' kind-of thing.

When I hear this sort of spin I instantly start digging for evidence. I want references. I want details. I want to know how easy, cheap and cost effective it is for me to do what I want. When a technology has been over-egged, a simpler, cheaper, more accessible option will come along and bite you right where you didn't want it to.

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Methodology Candidate: Extreme programming (XP)

Extreme programming is surprisingly popular, and has shot to international stardom in just a few short years. However, in many ways it's a victim of its own success. It suffers because it has validly found weaknesses in other methodologies but zealously goes on to build itself in, on and around them.

Because programmers didn't talk to each other much, XP stipulates that they work in pairs. Because programmers didn't talk to the client much, XP stipulates they have a client embedded in the team. Because programmers didn't test that much, XP stipulates that tests must be written before the code. In other words, just because something has a weakness you shouldn’t do the opposite in an extreme form. It’s like bringing the speed limit down to 20 miles an hour below the speed limit because some people have been caught doing 20 miles an hour over the limit.

Ironically, the "proof of concept" XP project, C3, was based on a fixed-spec payroll system -- hardly suitable for a development process that is designed for (and even encourages) spec changes.

Methodologies are a power driven aspect of IT, and in that game XP is a negotiating position. Our prediction (and truth be told, this is quite an easy one to make) is that over the next couple of years, the better parts of XP will be synthesized into more traditional methodologies.


Most new technologies have their place; their appropriate usage. Whatever the initial idea, the marketing spin tends to be that fashion X will cure disease Y (e.g. development will become faster, more scalable or more agile). However, a good idea can often be over-hyped to the extent that products get applied in all sorts of crazy, inappropriate ways. You would think that an industry like ours wouldn't be this starved of innovation that we need to hungrily devour every moderately good idea whenever one happens to wander by.

It's important to keep yourself immune from the hype that inflates software trends into fashions. To do this, you need to remain objective: to assess a product or API by its merits (and its originally intended purpose), rather than by how popular it is.

Just think twice before you jump on the fashion bandwagon. Ask yourself: is that new technology going to look like body piercing on your resume in a few years?



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