Beware of Productivity Tools by Mark Seemann
This article discusses developer productivity tools.
Once in a while I get into a heated discussion about the merits and demerits of ReSharper. As these discussions usually happen on Twitter, the 140 character limit isn't conducive to a nuanced debate. That's what I want to start here, not a rant.
This is not going to be an attack on ReSharper. In fact, I don't have a stronger opinion on ReSharper than any other 'productivity tool', but I more often get dragged into discussions about ReSharper than, say, JustCode or CodeRush. I guess it's because more people feel passionate about ReSharper.
In fact, I'm going to expand this discussion to a wider range of 'productivity tools', such as (but not limited to)
- Productivity Power Tools
- Visual Studio
Why are we even having this discussion? #
The only 'productivity tool' I currently use is Visual Studio 2012, and even that makes me uneasy. That's just my personal preference, you might say, and there's a partial truth in that. However, I'm not writing this to defend myself. Rather, I'm writing because I think you need to be aware of the issues presented here. It might make you a better developer if I can get you to actively and consciously consider a choice you may have taken for granted.
How do I even get dragged into these Twitter flame fests? Why do people even care whether or not I use a particular 'productivity tool'? First of all, I can't claim myself innocent of occasionally trolling - I just get a kick out of yanking that particular chain. There's a reason for that, and it's not just to be mischievous. I want you to reflect on your choice of tools. Don't just drink the Cool Aid.
Still, there's a deeper, more rational reason why some people care what I do: I do give a lot of presentations about code, and during those presentations I write a lot of code. Whenever I give a talk where I code live, I always rehearse a lot and use specialized code snippets in order not to bore the audience with trivial coding. Here's an example where during the talk, someone tweeted to complain that I didn't use ReSharper. However, the purpose of giving a talk about code isn't to produce the code in the fastest possible time. The purpose is to teach code. If I code too slowly, the audience may fall asleep, but if I go too fast, no one is going to learn anything. I'm just not convinced that in this particular case, the use of a 'productivity tool' is inherently better.
Can you even live without this or that productivity tool? #
The most common reaction I get whenever people hear that I don't use their favorite 'productivity tool' is one of disbelief.
- omg why? How can do without #resharper?
- You're seriously missing out. Visual Studio is completely useless without ReSharper, imho.
- but how will you work then? Bare bone vs is soo poor compared to just about any ide
- Without #resharper my productivity drops by 50%, I'm amazed that you can manage without it
- I don't understand why you avoid ReSharper.
- hmm.. R# is good for navigating around. Shortcuts to follow application flow, up and down. How do you do that without r#?
What's my beef with productivity tools? It's much deeper than a dislike for any particular tool. Charles Petzold already described his concern about Visual Studio in 2005 in a great talk titled Does Visual Studio Rot the Mind?. It's a long read, but definitely worth your while. You should go read it now.
In case you didn't want to take the time to read that article (but then: you're already reading this lengthy article), here's the gist of it: Via IntelliSense, code generation, Wizards and drag and drop, Visual Studio assists us, but it also pushes us towards writing (or not writing) code in a particular way. It railroads us.
Does it make us more productive? I don't even know how to measure developer productivity, so I can't answer that. Do we learn while coding like that? Not much, I'd say.
While Visual Studio is, in many ways, an impressive and extremely useful piece of software, it also concerns me that I'm so dependent on it. To learn new techniques, I try to follow what's going on outside the .NET/Microsoft ecosystem. Clojure looks like a very interesting language. Erlang seems to solve some hard problems in an easy way. Storm seems to be way ahead of anything Microsoft can currently offer. Ruby developers have claimed high productivity for years. Git is a better source control system than anything Microsoft offers.
However, I feel constrained by my reliance on Visual Studio. I want to learn and use those other technologies as well as .NET, so I'm certainly not looking for tools that will further strengthen my bond with Visual Studio. Using plain vanilla Visual Studio is the least I can do to broaden my horizons.
Productivity boosts #
A common argument for a 'productivity tool' is that it makes you more productive. "Without #resharper my productivity drops by 50%, I'm amazed that you can manage without it". That's an interesting statement. How do you even measure productivity?
For the sake of argument, let's for a moment pretend that programmer productivity is measured by lines of code written. There's this myth going around that a professional programmer only writes 10 lines of code per day. This is probably not true, but even so, how many lines of code do you produce on average per day? 100? 200? Are you seriously going to claim that your productivity bottleneck is determined by how fast you can type? Really? Then learn to type faster.
Consider that most code is read a lot more than it's written. Code should be optimized for reading, not writing. Thus, productivity, if it can be measured at all, should be measured by how quickly programmers can read and understand a piece of code - not by how fast it can be written.
Furthermore, if you believe that Pair Programming is one good and productive way to produce software, you must also realize that at every given moment, at least one person isn't typing at all. As Martin Fowler puts it: "that [Pair-Programming halves the productivity of developers] would be true if the hardest part of programming was typing". In my experience, this is not the case. Thus, I'm not convinced that 'productivity tools' make anyone more productive.
As Charles Petzold points out in his excellent article, Visual Studio enforces a certain bottom-up style of programming that isn't particularly aligned with business needs. Visual Studio (with or without 'productivity tools') makes it hard (but not impossible) to do Outside-In development.
My feeling is that whenever a tool helps us in a certain way, it closes a lot of other doors on us. We may not even be aware of what we aren't being shown, but if we can shake off the helping hand, we may also be able to see other options.
I don't mind being helped by a tool once in a while, but at other times, I'd rather make an informed decision by myself. At least I think it's important to realize that being helped means that decisions are being made for me. It's not a win-win situation. I may be able to finish a task quickly, but I lose the opportunity to learn. Not only that, but the more I rely on a tool for assistance, the more dependent do I become of it. The're a word for that. It's called Vendor lock-in.
Final thoughts #
All of this is highly subjective and personal. My personal style is to be very deliberate and patient. I go slowly in order to move fast.
In order to demonstrate just how slowly I go, I recorded half an hour of a TDD session. There's nothing special about this TDD session. I didn't pick it to impress anyone. I didn't pick the 'best' from a pool of a dozen candidates. I just recorded how I work and uploaded it. I dare you to watch it all the way through. It will be boring. You will see much think time and long periods of inactivity. This is actually a typical depiction of how I work. Yet, somehow, I still manage to produce software in such a quality that people keep coming back to me to pay me to do more.
If you watch just five minutes of that video, it should be clear to you that a 'productivity tool' wouldn't be of any help to me. It might not slow me down either, once I'd learned to use it, but it wouldn't make me more 'productive' either, so why should I bother with it?
This is just my opinion of 'productivity tools.' It's not a one-size-fits-all judgment. If you feel that you benefit from using your favorite 'productivity tool' I'm not going to tell you to change your ways. Likewise, don't judge me because I don't use a particular tool. Some programmers that I really respect use ReSharper. I respect them not because of, but rather despite of, that.