Matt Gemmell

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Confessions of an ex-developer

tech & development 6 min read

Marco Arment’s response to a piece by Ed Finkler on Ed’s diminishing motivation to learn new technologies interested me.

I’m in an intriguing position on this subject, because I’m not a developer anymore. I haven’t launched Xcode since last December. Every time I’m out socially with software developers (which is often; I’ve made many good friends in that line of work, and I have no desire to lose them), at least one person asks me if I miss the job.

My answer is always the same: not really. The actual truth of the matter, as ever, is more nuanced.

My mind still works in a systemic, algorithmic way - and it probably always will. I still automatically try to discern the workings of things, and diagnose their problems. I still have ideas for software, too. I begin to design the apps in my head before I realise I’m going down a blind alley. As an intellectual exercise, it’s engaging and enjoyable. You don’t let go of 20+ years of programming in just a few months.

But it never gets as far as launching an IDE. I was interested to hear the announcements at WWDC about Swift, too - but I didn’t read the reference material or watch the tutorials. I go up to a certain point, then I disengage - and it doesn’t even take any willpower. That’s just not where my interests lie anymore. I’m as surprised as anyone at how smoothly I’ve been able to make the change.

There’s a quote in Marco’s piece that struck a chord with me:

I've lost almost all interest in being a web developer. The client-side app world is much more stable, favoring deep knowledge of infrequent changes over the constant barrage of new, not necessarily better but at least different technologies, libraries, frameworks, techniques, and methodologies that burden professional web development.

I used to feel exactly the same way, and if I was still a developer, I’d also still feel that way.

I’m a tinkerer now. I don’t launch Xcode, I don’t keep a record of the app ideas I have, and I don’t write code - except that, of course, I still sort of do.

I automate tasks on my machines, often via shell scripts. I use regular expressions all the time. I write the occasional piece of server-side logic for something in relation to this blog. I extend the productivity utilities I use, for my own benefit. And, of course, I tweak HTML and CSS regularly. I know that regexps, markup and CSS aren’t programming or even scripting, son, but they’re broadly from the same world and demand a similar mode of thinking, hence their inclusion here.

I’m deeply grateful that none of those things require anything but a text editor, and a terminal or a web browser. It’s so lightweight and decoupled - just like me, you might say, from my former career. I’m glad there are no compilers (visible) in my life. I’m also glad that I can view the WWDC keynote as a tourist, without any approaching tension headache as I think about what I’ll need to add, or change, or remove. I can drift languidly along on the slow-moving current of the everyday web, indulging an old habit when a rainy evening comes by.

It’s a profoundly relaxing thing to be able to observe the technology industry without being invested in it. I’m glad I’m not making software anymore.

It’s not about complexity or time investment; not at all. In fact, I relish those things, otherwise I wouldn’t have been much of a developer (and I like to think I was a fairly good one). Right now I’m finishing up the first draft of a 90,000-word novel. Complexity and enormous investment of time are my daily companions, seven days a week.

The truth is, I actually find the software development world really frightening.

I’m not worried about my skills, either - I’m pretty sure they’re still sharp enough, and fairly relevant - but rather the surrounding environment. The current context.

There’s a chill wind blowing, isn’t there? I know we don’t talk about it much, and that you’re crossing your fingers and knocking on wood right now, but you do know what I mean.

If you attend an iOS/Mac dev meetup and hang around long enough, you’ll start to hear the whispers and the nervous laughter. There are people making merry in the midst of plenty, but each of them occasionally steps away to the edge of the room, straining to listen over the music, trying to hear the barbarians at the gates. There’s something wrong with the world, Neo.

We’ve had our (latest) software Renaissance in the form of the mobile platforms and their App Stores, and I think the software biz is now starting to slide back towards consolidation and mega-corps again. It’s not a particularly great time to be an indie app developer anymore.

Small shops are closing. Three-person companies are dropping back to sole proprietorships all over the place. Products are being acquired every week, usually just for their development teams, and then discarded.

The implacable, crushing wheels of industry, slow to move because of their size, have at last arrived on the frontier. Our frontier, or at least yours now. I’ve relinquished my claim.

All of this stuff scares the hell out of me:

  • Software patents, and their use as a financial weapon.

  • The walled garden of the various App Stores, with mysterious and ever-changing rules governing admittance, and the constant threat of capricious rejection.

  • The consequent relative invisibility of non-App Store software.

  • The incredibly crowded market, with imitations and duplicates of popular titles springing up overnight.

  • The race to the bottom, price-wise, and the resulting unsustainable consumer perception of software’s value (which has only been encouraged by the App Stores).

  • The huge surplus of software developers out there, with more and more arriving every day.

It sometimes feels like my former homeland is burning itself to the ground.

Those things all frightened me while I was a developer too, but in a much more immediate and visceral way. I can talk about them now because they’re not so close anymore. That’s sadly not the case for my many developer friends and acquaintances.

And, yes, it’s fair to say that it’s also a great time to be a developer, from a purely technological point of view:

  • The tools and languages are better than ever.

  • The hardware is astonishing, not just in terms of performance but also the wealth of sensors and gadgets we now have access to.

  • The reference material is better, and there’s much more of it.

  • As a development platform, the Mac is absolutely where all the excitement is. It’s about time.

That’s all great, and I’m happy about it, but for sustainability it’s a far cry from the halcyon days of the iOS App Store’s youth. Things are most definitely changing, and there are clouds on the horizon. I’m concerned. Aren’t you?

These days, as I said, I’m a full-time writer - which means that my income has fallen off a cliff. A very high cliff. The kind that haunts the tortured, hungry, insane dreams of Wile E. Coyote.

I knew it would be this way going in, and I made my choice. I won’t be buying a Tesla anytime soon, and I’ve learned a lot about myself during the last seven months.

For what it’s worth, I’m happier in my work than I’ve ever been.

I’m not claiming for one second that I’m in a “better position” than the software developers I’ve left behind, or any such nonsense (and I’m saying it explicitly because people will make that accusation). All I’m saying is that I’m head-over-heels delighted to get to my desk each morning, and you can’t put a price on that.

I really hope that I’m wrong about this, and that we haven’t entered the Second Sundering of indie software, the likes of which we haven’t seen since “shareware” was the word on everyone’s lips. I really do hope I’m mistaken.

Regardless, though, it all comes back to happiness - which I’ve been fortunate to find many times in my life. My nascent new career has certainly brought me plenty of it already. Most developers I know feel exactly the same way about their jobs too, which means they’re in the right line of work.

If there’s a lesson here, I suppose it’s that, in the face of change (whether it’s a shifting personal focus, or seismic ripples in your industry), the old truth still applies: work is hard, and the future is uncertain - so you’d better be doing something you love.

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