Sections of a Prefabricated Henhouse

In 1946, George Orwell published an essay entitled Politics and the English Language. Orwell noted that much of what passed for political discourse (in 1946) consisted mainly of vague or meaningless phrases tacked together much as one would assemble a prefabicated henhouse. He further claimed that that this misuse of language was poisoning politics.

A beautiful, prefabricated hen-house

Let’s postpone investigation into the market for prefabricated henhouses, and scrape away at the foundation of Orwell’s argument. To wit, language is influenced by — and in turn, influences — politics and culture, and lazy, inaccurate and foolish language induces and reflects those characteristics in politics and culture. But there is an even deeper lesson here: using lazy language to for achieving an effect without the expense and inconvenience of understanding.

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. George Orwell, Horizon 1946.

My goodness, this sounds a lot like modern web application development!

Let’s leave Orwell alone for a bit, and examine web development.

Recently in San Francisco, and spreading internationally, the software, or more precisely, the “startup industry” is producing a large number of “hen-house prefabricator.” That is to say, we’re producing a large number of web programmers without deep understanding of either programming craft or the mathematical foundations underpinning software engineering principles.

Along with resources such as personal blogs, StackOverflow and other technical forums, it’s possible to accomplish quite a bit without really understanding much at all.

But there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. Both Web programming and henhouse construction is honorable work, and in fact, equating hens with information (bear with me here), we need a hell of a lot more “henhouse constructors” in information technology, and we need them now.

I’ve done something similar in the past: framing houses to satisfy a crushing need for fast housing in Austin Texas. As the “Info For Building” web page (previous link) asserts, framing is indeed the most exciting phase of home construction. So too is web development one of the more exciting kinds of software development. Even your Mom can see it, which possibly makes web programming unique among programming endeavors.

But my framing carpentry in Austin was before the Savings and Loan scandal crashed the economy in the Southwest (a discussion of which would take us too far afield). Because nearly all of my construction experience was limited to new residential construction, I was not able to find employment in Austin as a commercial or industrial carpenter, and simply didn’t have the experience to make a living as an independent contractor doing, say, remodeling work.

In fact, I had to leave Austin to find work in new residential construction working my way across the Southeast, picking up work in Charleston, Nashville and Louisville.

Because software development is largely location-independent, following the work is much more difficult than in construction.

The danger for people making careers out of any “henhouse fabrication” skills is that once the market has enough henhouses, demand for prefabricators is going to collapse. And might well collapse much faster than most people realize. Having been through such crashes in the past, it can happen very quickly over a few weeks to a couple of months. Jobs tend to slowly build to a peak, then crash to a much lower level, then continue to tail off slowly, and occasionally disappear altogether. In software, the recessions of 2002 and 2008 bit very deep.

While software development as an industry will (almost certainly) continue to grow, so too the technology expands. Limiting one’s experience to assembling prefabricated components (which is to say, copying code from StackOverflow, generating scaffolded components from Rails, etc.), may not be the most effective way to grow one’s career. There is more to software development than web programming, and at some point we, as an industry, will reach saturation with respect to web programmers.

Be ready for it.

Before the chickens come home to roost.