Journal tags: node

2

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Mental models

I’ve found that the older I get, the less I care about looking stupid. This is remarkably freeing. I no longer have any hesitancy about raising my hand in a meeting to ask “What’s that acronym you just mentioned?” This sometimes has the added benefit of clarifying something for others in the room who might have been to shy to ask.

I remember a few years back being really confused about npm. Fortunately, someone who was working at npm at the time came to Brighton for FFConf, so I asked them to explain it to me.

As I understood it, npm was intended to be used for managing packages of code for Node. Wasn’t it actually called “Node Package Manager” at one point, or did I imagine that?

Anyway, the mental model I had of npm was: npm is to Node as PEAR is to PHP. A central repository of open source code projects that you could easily add to your codebase …for your server-side code.

But then I saw people talking about using npm to manage client-side JavaScript. That really confused me. That’s why I was asking for clarification.

It turns out that my confusion was somewhat warranted. The npm project had indeed started life as a repo for server-side code but had since expanded to encompass client-side code too.

I understand how it happened, but it confirmed a worrying trend I had noticed. Developers were writing front-end code as though it were back-end code.

On the one hand, that makes total sense when you consider that the code is literally in the same programming language: JavaScript.

On the other hand, it makes no sense at all! If your code’s run-time is on the server, then the size of the codebase doesn’t matter that much. Whether it’s hundreds or thousands of lines of code, the execution happens more or less independentally of the network. But that’s not how front-end development works. Every byte matters. The more code you write that needs to be executed on the user’s device, the worse the experience is for that user. You need to limit how much you’re using the network. That means leaning on what the browser gives you by default (that’s your run-time environment) and keeping your code as lean as possible.

Dave echoes my concerns in his end-of-the-year piece called The Kind of Development I Like:

I now think about npm and wonder if it’s somewhat responsible for some of the pain points of modern web development today. Fact is, npm is a server-side technology that we’ve co-opted on the client and I think we’re feeling those repercussions in the browser.

Writing back-end and writing front-end code require very different approaches, in my opinion. But those differences have been erased in “modern” JavaScript.

The Unix Philosophy encourages us to write small micro libraries that do one thing and do it well. The Node.js Ecosystem did this in spades. This works great on the server where importing a small file has a very small cost. On the client, however, this has enormous costs.

In a funny way, this situation reminds me of something I saw happening over twenty years ago. Print designers were starting to do web design. They had a wealth of experience and knowledge around colour theory, typography, hierarchy and contrast. That was all very valuable to bring to the world of the web. But the web also has fundamental differences to print design. In print, you can use as many typefaces as you want, whereas on the web, to this day, you need to be judicious in the range of fonts you use. But in print, you might have to limit your colour palette for cost reasons (depending on the printing process), whereas on the web, colours are basically free. And then there’s the biggest difference of all: working within known dimensions of a fixed page in print compared to working within the unknowable dimensions of flexible viewports on the web.

Fast forward to today and we’ve got a lot of Computer Science graduates moving into front-end development. They’re bringing with them a treasure trove of experience in writing robust scalable code. But web browsers aren’t like web servers. If your back-end code is getting so big that it’s starting to run noticably slowly, you can throw more computing power at it by scaling up your server. That’s not an option on the front-end where you don’t really have one run-time environment—your end users have their own run-time environment with its own constraints around computing power and network connectivity.

That’s a very, very challenging world to get your head around. The safer option is to stick to the mental model you’re familiar with, whether you’re a print designer or a Computer Science graduate. But that does a disservice to end users who are relying on you to deliver a good experience on the World Wide Web.

Frustration

I had some problems with my bouzouki recently. Now, I know my bouzouki pretty well. I can navigate the strings and frets to make music. But this was a problem with the pickup under the saddle of the bouzouki’s bridge. So it wasn’t so much a musical problem as it was an electronics problem. I know nothing about electronics.

I found it incredibly frustrating. Not only did I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I also had no idea of the scope of the problem. Would it take five minutes or five days? Who knows? Not me.

My solution to a problem like this is to pay someone else to fix it. Even then I have to go through the process of having the problem explained to me by someone who understands and cares about electronics much more than me. I nod my head and try my best to look like I’m taking it all in, even though the truth is I have no particular desire to get to grips with the inner workings of pickups—I just want to make some music.

That feeling of frustration I get from having wiring issues with a musical instrument is the same feeling I get whenever something goes awry with my web server. I know just enough about servers to be dangerous. When something goes wrong, I feel very out of my depth, and again, I have no idea how long it will take the fix the problem: minutes, hours, days, or weeks.

I had a very bad day yesterday. I wanted to make a small change to the Clearleft website—one extra line of CSS. But the build process for the website is quite convoluted (and clever), automatically pulling in components from the site’s pattern library. Something somewhere in the pipeline went wrong—I still haven’t figured out what—and for a while there, the Clearleft website was down, thanks to me. (Luckily for me, Danielle saved the day …again. I’d be lost without her.)

I was feeling pretty down after that stressful day. I felt like an idiot for not knowing or understanding the wiring beneath the site.

But, on the other hand, considering I was only trying to edit a little bit of CSS, maybe the problem didn’t lie entirely with me.

There’s a principle underlying the architecture of the World Wide Web called The Rule of Least Power. It somewhat counterintuitively states that you should:

choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Perhaps, given the relative simplicity of the task I was trying to accomplish, the plumbing was over-engineered. That complexity wouldn’t matter if I could circumvent it, but without the build process, there’s no way to change the markup, CSS, or JavaScript for the site.

Still, most of the time, the build process isn’t a hindrance, it’s a help: concatenation, minification, linting and all that good stuff. Most of my frustration when something in the wiring goes wrong is because of how it makes me feel …just like with the pickup in my bouzouki, or the server powering my website. It’s not just that I find this stuff hard, but that I also feel like it’s stuff I’m supposed to know, rather than stuff I want to know.

On that note…

Last week, Paul wrote about getting to grips with JavaScript. On the very same day, Brad wrote about his struggle to learn React.

I think it’s really, really, really great when people share their frustrations and struggles like this. It’s very reassuring for anyone else out there who’s feeling similarly frustrated who’s worried that the problem lies with them. Also, this kind of confessional feedback is absolute gold dust for anyone looking to write explanations or documentation for JavaScript or React while battling the curse of knowledge. As Paul says:

The challenge now is to remember the pain and anguish I endured, and bare that in mind when helping others find their own path through the knotted weeds of JavaScript.