Christian Maioli


Forget frameworks, become a versatile hacker

Back around 2013, the term Full Stack developer started to come up in job descriptions and blog posts. Companies were realizing that hiring developers with expertise in only one language just wasn’t enough anymore. A web developer that can handle a variety of tasks and environments is considerably more useful, and was starting to become the norm.

In spite of this, knowledge about web architecture itself did not become widespread. Many developers have been building websites without having a good grasp of how things work behind the scenes. Web forms, caching, the HTTP protocol, Apache. All of these were secondary good-to-haves.

Is taking online courses enough to keep up?

Perhaps as a consequence of the online learning boom that had started a few years earlier, the self-taught web developer knows surprisingly little about the web’s underlying technology. Language-oriented courses cannot cover the complete web stack, and students will end up clueless about what an htaccess file does, or how to restart a Unix daemon, or how the different types of POST encoding work.

What is a full stack developer supposed to know, anyway? Job descriptions frequently mention combinations of frontend and backend technologies such as JavaScript and Node, PHP and jQuery, Angular and Spring, and many others. In reality there is a significant amount of information outside those realms that would improve someone’s ability to build a website, and gone are the days when you could stick with what you know and make a career out of a single technology.

If sticking to your guns won’t suffice anymore, then what can we do, and how can we keep up with the exponential multiplication of web libraries? There is so much software being released today, that the number of possible combinations between technologies is increasing very rapidly. This combinatorial explosion will drive software development into a more ad-hoc territory. Your chances of knowing how to integrate two random libraries X and Y are ever diminishing, and any help that googling can provide is diminishing at the same rate. The window is about to close, and a time will soon come when we’ll be required to figure these tough problems out on the spot, every time. Not something for the lazy ones among us.

Hackers: the antifragile programmers

I was introduced to this very interesting concept in an article by programming rockstar John Carmack. It’s described in the following quote from the Antifragile book:

“Just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension, and rumors or riots intensify when someone tries to repress them, many things in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil. What Taleb has identified and calls “antifragile” is that category of things that not only gain from chaos but need it in order to survive and flourish.”

This idea reflects the attitude shared by those that used to be called hackers. Today the word has a negative connotation, but in the early days, it referred to a person with a certain attitude towards technology. As defined by the jargon file, a hacker is: A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.”

There was a time when looking things up on Stack Overflow whenever you had a problem just wasn’t an option, and many pieces of software had unreadable documentation, if they had any at all. I remember trying to fix a sound card issue as a kid, and reading the card’s manual, only to find assembly code listings there, with interrupt codes and all. That is the environment where hackers thrived, and that’s what we are going back to, sooner or later. If your first instinct when dealing with a complex issue that affects multiple technologies is to start with a Google search, you should reconsider your working habits.

Granted, being too curious can many times lead you down the wrong path, especially in the corporate environment where time is always short. As an example, it can be very enlightening to write test code for the basic use cases when learning about a new library, but coders looking to impress the boss will take the more pragmatic approach of copying the examples from the documentation, fully unaware of how they work. Giving value as a developer requires a certain amount of skill in time management and in setting expectations, as to allow you to seek the knowledge you need and to save the company money in the long term.

How to become a versatile hacker

  • Whenever you have to google some error message or problem, read all the answers. Get as much context as possible on your problem, and do not be satisfied just with having come across a solution.
  • Learn about the technology, but also about the trade-offs that were made during its design and development.
  • Ask yourself what it would take for you to consider yourself a “complete” developer, and write down a path for you to get there.
  • Do what other people don’t like doing, go where they don’t want to go, and often enough you will be enlightened by the experience.

Software development is growing fast. Learning to code is easier than ever, and soon enough we will be in a survival of the fittest environment. But the guy that makes it is not going to be the guy that first learned about the cool new framework. It’s going to be the guy that asked himself what’s new about it, and what’s different this time. If you want to stay up to date with technology stacks, then stop worrying so much about being up to date, and start hacking.

Note: this article first appeared on TechBeacon.

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