Sunday, November 21, 2010

Does technology still matter?

This week the Java conference W-JAX 2010 was held in Munich and I had the pleasure to talk about some Maven Magic. The JAX conference series is quite popular here in Germany. I've been attending it more or less regularly over the last years. Like probably most other developer conferences all over the world, the sessions at JAX and W-JAX typically cover the current "hype-technologies". I enjoyed the conference very much and learned some news about JDK 7 and 8, garbage collector tuning and distributed versions control systems.

But, and this is a notable difference to all the conferences before, two of the keynotes had nothing to do at all with new technologies. Instead, the speakers (Nico Josuttis and Gernot Starke) talked a lot about the "soft" side of IT. Basically they asked themselves and the audience: Does technology still matter? This is surely a challenging question for a conference packed with developers. Nonetheless, both talks were excellent and made me think again about how to handle "all-new" technologies in my job.

The baseline of these thoughts is: I'm sure technology matters, but I'm not sure, how much. In large projects, the fraction of project staff that are actually IT-experts is amazingly low. You'll find a lot managers, business analysts (which are experts, too, of course, but not driven by technology) and, to be honest, a lot of developers that are, well, not experts. This is even more true if you look at projects that have entered the maintenance phase of their life cycle.

This is not a new discovery, of course. But do we really take this fact into account when designing and implementing new systems and technologies? I try to, but the problem is, I like technology. Its so much more fun using a brand-new technology for a given problem than an old, boring (but proven) one. And I know most other experts out there feel the same. That's why they talk on conferences about JDK 7 and 8, about the pros and cons of closures and, like me, the magic of maven dependency management.

Over the last couple of years and right now during the keynotes on W-JAX I got the feeling that this attitude to concentrate on technology details somehow is, yes, irrelevant. Its cool for us, the developers that spend their spare time reading blogs. But, as Nico Josuttis said in his keynote: "The war of experts in IT is lost". IT is a mainstream technology today. It's expected to be reliable, efficient, affordable, stable - but not cool. And it's expected, that all those technologies are manageable by non-experts. The people that drive the current technologies in new directions should keep this in mind. Is a discussion, what's the right way to incorporate closures in JDK 8 appropriate from this point of view? Certainly not. Is a discussion on how to consequently make Java easier to understand for non-experts (like the Groovy guys did) appropriate? In my opinion, certainly yes.

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