When choosing an integrated development environment, prefer lumberjacks to magicians

By , ITworld.com |  Development, IDE

There are two types of integrated development environments (IDE) in the world. That is convenient, because there are two types of developer in the world. To make things even more symmetrical and just super peachy, there are two types of opinions about IDEs in the world. Those that make grand generalizations and make everything look nice and binary; and those that do not. The opinion in this article is in the former camp. There are two types of possible reaction to this...

...Relax. I was joking. The binary splits stop here. We have enough to be getting on with. IDEs. Yes. Two types. Yes. The types are: lumberjack IDE and magician IDE.

Let's take the lumberjack IDE first. This type of IDE provides all sorts of labor-saving devices to perform typing/processing that you could do but do not want to do because it is boring, repetitious and/or time consuming. Examples? Automatically indenting code. Automatically adding end-tags in XML documents. Automatically knowing where to go in the online manuals to look up information based on where the cursor is, right now.

Now let's contrast the magician IDE. This type of IDE provides all the above and more. At the press of a button it will generate big chunks of code for you that you can compile and run. It is capable of optimizing your code behind the scenes in all sorts of clever ways. It gives you a visual view of your code and data so that you don not actually have to know all the details about how things are stored and inter-related. It is capable of pulling all aspects of your projects together in one place, freeing you to get on with that task at hand.

Doesn't the magician IDE sounds great? What's not to like? Well, a lot actually. If you go this route you may end up not understanding how your own application is organized "under the hood". You may loose visibility of all the dependencies your project has because the IDE does it all for you. You may find that the only way you can talk to your database is through the "wizard screens" because those screens generated so much magic code, that you can no longer connect to the database unaided...

The magician IDE comes at a significant price: understanding. The lumberjack IDE on the other hand, is less flashy but at least you know what it is doing and could - if required - do it yourself. When choosing an IDE, think real hard about the sometimes fuzzy line between harmless convenience and harmful disenfranchisement. Make a point of living outside of your IDE for a day every now and then. You might be unpleasantly surprised at how much you have come to depend on the magic to function.

The moral of the story: choose an IDE that does not impede you from truly understanding what is going on under the hood. Magic is alluring but is ultimately detrimental to the most important thing a developer can possess: a cogent mental model of how her application actually works.

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