Over the past few years my clientele shifted from a mix of mostly mid-market companies and a few startups to almost entirely startups, and that shift has resulted in a wider palette of languages requested by clients. Where my business was about 95% Java for the first 10+ years of my career, today it is closer to 25%. As I’ve written before, my business veered naturally from a pure Java focus when a considerable amount of the Java talent I have represented in years past started to migrate and show interest in diverse languages and ecosystems.
Unlike the boom periods for startups in the past, it appears that today’s startup is much less likely to choose Java as the primary development platform. Many developers who did Java work for startups in the mid 2000’s sought higher ground in the late part of the decade when small shops took a hit, and found themselves working for large companies and more corporate environments.
Flash forward to the past few years and the resurgence of startups. Many of those engineers who took shelter in the larger firms are now interested in establishing themselves once again as a major contributor on a small team in a startup, and when I have represented some of these highly qualified developers to startups now, I’ve been met with the feedback ‘The candidate’s résumé appears too enterprisey‘. As an aside, I don’t get that response nearly as often for Java engineers that stayed with small companies.
The enterprisey label, in my experience, seems to be used in two situations that can often (but not always) go hand-in-hand. First, enterprisey is often used to describe candidates that come from large development shops regardless of the languages used (although Java and .Net platforms are the norm), where the bias is that the development culture and the broader company culture make that candidate less likely to succeed in the startup. This is the result of preconceptions surrounding development methodology, possible unnecessary complexity in applications, a slower release schedule, or the impression that developers in these larger environments are sheltered from tasks related to data, devops, sysadmin, and QA that are frequently handled by developers at startups. The label may be applied liberally to virtually any candidate coming from a company larger than the hiring firm.
The second common enterprisey tag is used on any developer using Java or .Net regardless of the employer size, due to the predominant viewpoint that other language communities have developed regarding Java/.Net being wrought with and plagued by dozens of frameworks and bloated stacks. As someone who sees thousands of résumés a year, it is clear that résumés of Java and .Net developers are often significantly longer than those of developers in other languages, but there could be several factors at play there beyond just the number of potential bloat items (insert Java = verbose joke here). At a distance, the résumés of Java developers can resemble an eye chart, with acronyms outnumbering actual words. One hiring manager of a Scala shop provided this gem:
“The laundry list of legacy enterprise technologies (JMS, JMX, etc.) doesn’t do anything for me.”
The word ‘legacy’ seems particularly cruel there.
Sadly, many of those making hiring decisions in these startups are quick to dismiss a highly-skilled talent simply because of their experience working for a larger company or their primary language being in the Java or .Net worlds. Whereas an interest in, say, functional languages is now often used by startups as an indicator of ability, the prolonged use of Java or .Net at a large firm can be a detriment when applying for work in any other language or polyglot environments.
So how can engineers labeled ‘enterprisey’ escape that bias and be accepted by smaller shops with different languages?
Résumé and bio de-enterprisification – That’s not a word (yet), but the concept would be to go back and make sure your résumé/bio/LinkedIn profile/etc. doesn’t read like a corporate Buzzword Bingo card. Eliminate or modify anything that may appear steeped in bureaucratic process and procedure, and be wary of any items that can be perceived as indicative of a glacial development pace. References to project length and time between releases should typically be avoided. Emphasize new development over maintenance tasks, and accomplishments over process. Listing too many tools, frameworks, and specifications will often work against you and may be considered an indicator of your dependence upon them. Shortening the résumé is almost always the way to go here, and three + page résumés generally smell of enterpriseyness.
Develop other language credibility – Any code that you can point to that does not run the risk of being labeled enterprisey is better than nothing. As stated before, some startups perceive functional programming interest as a marker for ability, so even an implementation of a typical interview exercise in a functional language (or one different from your primary) has value. Provide links to this code on your résumé and reference any personal projects that are applicable.
Stop calling yourself ‘LANGUAGE Developer’ – I do it too (all the time), but you should not. Use whatever you feel is appropriate – Software Engineer, Programmer, Developer, Geek – but stop inserting a language when describing yourself on paper or verbally. And perhaps more importantly, stop thinking of yourself as a LANGUAGE Developer. Sometimes you may need to dumb it down so the clueless recruiter will find you, but try to minimize those instances the best you can (and do you really want that recruiter to find you anyway?).
Express your outside interests – Just because you get paid by some insurance company to write Java/.Net apps all day doesn’t mean that is who you are. If you are exploring other languages through books, conferences, and self-study, make that known in whatever way may be discovered during your job search (résumé, blog, social media, etc.). Hobbies like robotics, Raspberry Pi, and Arduino are probably unrelated to your job but not necessarily unrelated to your career. Any technical interests beyond the primary function of your job demonstrate at least some level of versatility and the ability to adapt outside of your enterprisey 9 to 5.
Recently, a 2001 blog post with the title Java’s Cover written by Paul Graham (of Y Combinator fame) spread across Twitter and was linked by all the other usual tech site suspects. The piece was about what Graham called ‘hacker’s radar‘, which he describes as the ability of hackers to ‘develop a nose for good (and bad) technology‘. For his description of hacker’s radar, he decided to cite Java as an example of a technology that smelled bad at the time. Java’s popularity in 2001 made it a pretty big target for critique. The title Java’s Cover is a reference to judging a book by the cover, and Graham argued that Java’s cover was a stinker.
Graham admits in the article that he had never written Java and his main exposure was when he ‘glanced over reference books‘, though Graham does have substantial tech credibility as a hacker. He lists 12 reasons why he didn’t like the look of Java, and mentions that he had a hunch that Java would not be a very ‘successful language‘ (but he ‘may turn out to be mistaken‘).
The commentary on the aforementioned usual suspect sites seems, predictably and unfortunately, to be centered on the accuracy (‘is Java truly successful?’) or inaccuracy (Java is everywhere) of the prediction itself. I feel it is a much more interesting exercise to take the opportunity to go into the author’s opinions as representative of an advanced technologist, and to see what factors would lead a like-minded and influential technologist to potentially have the same negative reaction to a new tool/language based on relatively non-technical factors. Every day we read articles that are highly critical of languages, frameworks, design patterns, and anything else you can imagine, and it can be difficult to tell how much experience the author may actually have (or even need) to make such assertions. When an industry voice writes an opinion on a topic based on the factors listed by Graham, what weight is given to the conclusions by the community? Graham’s article is somewhat unique in that he was willing to list the ‘smell’ reasons for his suspicion.
Looking at each reason Graham gave individually may give us some insight into how technologists yesterday and today may form opinions about a variety of topics, and whether or not we can use these tests to determine future success.
1. It has been so energetically hyped.
While it is certainly true that excessive hype can be a sign of any potential product’s weakness, that certainly isn’t always the case. Graham mentions notes that ‘A real standard tends to be already established by the time most people hear about it’. You will find that almost every technology that is highly criticized has been blessed/cursed with a fair amount of hype, either generated by marketing people with profit motive or evangelists that may have much smaller (or even zero) financial interests. I’m not sure that hype alone should make technologists wary about a new offering, but people who are naturally skeptical will surely be wary of over-the-top hype efforts.
2. It’s aimed low.
This one seems to have some merit. In this case Graham is saying that Java is intentionally dumbed down, and that ‘Java’s designers were consciously designing a product for people not as smart as them. Historically, languages designed for other people to use have been bad: Cobol, PL/I, Pascal, Ada, C++. The good languages have been those that were designed for their own creators: C, Perl, Smalltalk, Lisp.‘
When people create a product/tool for other people to use, they obviously want their audience to be able to learn it, and Graham seems to argue that by ‘aiming low’ and focusing on ease of use you are probably placing unnecessary limitations on the product you are building. If you were creating based solely on the need to solve specific problems, ease of use would not be as great a factor.
3. It has ulterior motives.
In this case Graham is speaking of Sun’s plan to ‘undermine‘ Microsoft. We could certainly apply some tests of ulterior motives to several new developments in tech over the past several years, but I’d imagine it would be a difficult task to find similar motives in the overwhelming majority of new products. This one is probably, in most cases, not applicable.
4. No one loves it.
Ouch! Every language, every tool, is loved by someone. Remember all those people in #1 above that make up the hype machine? Perhaps by saying ‘I’ve never heard anyone say that they loved Java‘, Graham meant that that no one of any influence or importance loves it. If a product is eschewed by the most widely respected folks in industry, that is a warning sign. When some thought leaders begin to endorse tools they become viable for others to adopt (see alternative JVM programming language adoption by big firms today). Some former Java evangelists professing a love for Scala comes to mind.
5. People are forced to use it.
Being told that you have to use a tool does not make it questionable, but in Graham’s brief description he infers that the anecdotal evidence includes smart people that would have used the tool voluntarily if it were good. This is probably better said as ‘Outside forces with potentially differing objectives force technologists to use it against the techie’s own better judgement.’ It’s hard to argue with that.
6. It has too many cooks.
This one is quite interesting, especially with the changes that have occurred in the industry since 2001 and the emergence of open source as a dominant player in the market. Graham went on to write that ‘the best programming languages have been developed by small groups. Java seems to be run by a committee. If it turns out to be a good language, it will be the first time in history that a committee has designed a good language.‘
Issues with the JCP over the years have been written about ad nauseam. But what would Graham make of other open source developments over the years? I imagine the rebuttal would be that only the highest level members of an open source project are truly the ‘cooks’ he refers to, with the rest of the members merely relegated to chopping and slicing. Maybe not. Being suspicious of multiple decision-makers pandering to multiple masters would be natural, and warranted.
7. It’s bureaucratic.
In this case Graham is referring to the language structure itself and not the leadership. This can be perhaps lumped into #2 It’s aimed low although not in every instance. If a language is ‘aimed low’, you might expect that the designers would try and limit the types of mistakes users could make (see #9 as well).
8. It’s pseudo-hip.
Interesting perspective. I’d argue it was hip. Graham continued, ‘Sun now pretends that Java is a grassroots, open-source language effort like Perl or Python. This one just happens to be controlled by a giant company. So the language is likely to have the same drab clunkiness as anything else that comes out of a big company.‘
I couldn’t help but notice the words Graham uses to critique Java in 2001 are very similar to how Democrats paint the modern day Tea Party (an observation on the language, not a political statement). The real meat of this criticism seems to be that the product is controlled by a large organization, which per Graham would by default make it ‘clunky’, but posing as a much more community-friendly and open option. I’m guessing this element of Graham’s opinion would have been amplified dramatically after the Oracle acquisition. Would hackers feel differently if a big company tool wore the corporate badge proudly?
9. It’s designed for large organizations.
Graham specifies that Java was designed to limit large teams of mediocre programmers from causing damage. This seems very much like reasons #2 It’s aimed low and #7 It’s bureaucratic above. This is probably more accurately categorized as ‘designed for mediocre programmers‘. I would assume that any advanced technologist would probably be less interested in a tool that seems to be created for a lesser engineer. Graham wants only languages for big boys and girls, and most advanced and even intermediate hackers would probably agree.
10. The wrong people like it.
Graham lists the wrong people as ‘suits’ tuned into the hype from #1, big company programmers from #9, and college kids looking to get a job. He feels that all three of these groups change their minds regularly. I’d say the college kids of 2012 appear to be interested in newer technologies (Ruby, Python, functional programming, mobile) that are probably not the core of their curriculum (Java), and in 2001 they were also interested in newer technologies (Java) that were also not the focus of their education (C/C++). Does the interest of college grads in Ruby and Python make those tools the wrong tools, or do today’s college grads have a bit more of a sophisticated hacker palate? What do the suits and big company programmers love today? Tools with ample talent supply, maybe?
11. Its daddy is in a pinch.
Java’s OLD daddy was, but Java’s new daddy buys islands! But this isn’t about Java. The financial standing of the steward of a language or product is certainly a valid consideration to make when evaluating the future viability regarding use in developing a product. But who would be deemed the daddy of open source tools? Individual project owners perhaps? The vendor ecosystem that supports them? The landscape has changed enough since 2001 that this criticism might be less of a factor now.
12. The DoD likes it.
Guilt by association, and Graham calls DoD culture the ‘opposite‘ of hacker culture. In some recent discussions about Java and alternative JVM languages, I’ve seen this discrimination used in reverse, where Java supporters claim that the use of the alternative JVM languages by start-ups is a strike against using the alternative options. The argument is that start-ups are all run by kids and cowboys, so any choices they make can’t be grounded in solid technical judgment. Interesting how two groups, who both probably feel they are above-average technologists, can come up with opposite interpretations.
If you made it to the very bottom of Graham’s post, there is a link to an article called Trevor Re: Java’s Cover, which refers to comments by Trevor Blackwell (also a YC partner) about the post. Blackwell classifies programmers as either ‘brilliant hackers‘ or ‘corporate drones‘ with most tools being written for the drones, so hackers need to know the smell tests to decipher quickly which tools are meant for the hacker and which were designed for the drones. Of course, very few of the people Blackwell calls drones probably feel they are in that camp, which just complicates the issues even more.
I feel that Graham’s article is interesting as a time capsule to compare how hackers thought about new tools in 2001 and how they may come to conclusions about languages today. As an investor, I’m sure some of the same smell tests Graham listed would apply to how he evaluates start-ups for potential funding. Whether Graham was right or wrong about Java doesn’t matter at all, but getting a glimpse into his thought process then is quite valuable.
How would the current batch of popular and emerging technologies fair today, using Graham’s microscope?
It’s been a week since I posted “Advice From A JUG Leader – Learn a Different Language” and it seems to have ruffled at least a few feathers in the Java community. As the article has been re-posted and bounced around on Twitter, I have had some opportunity to interact with some members of the Java community who have strong feelings about the content. None have called for my death, and the debate has been almost entirely polite thus far.
I think and sincerely hope that the Java community understands that the impetus for writing this article was an observation that many in the Java community are simply not aware of the trends in the industry, and by the time those trends become standards it is too late. These are the people that, if the train does come, never heard it approaching. My purpose is not to predict or encourage the demise of Java, as that should not and will not happen. The Java community is deeply loyal to Java, perhaps even to a fault, and I hope these articles serve as a wake-up call that the most important loyalty should be to your career as a software professional and to neither an employer or language.
I have noticed from these mini-debates is that defenders of Java, at least in my interactions so far, seem to primarily be highly experienced developers that perhaps have the most invested in Java. As I mentioned in my original article, I don’t expect known Java experts to feel any changes. At least a few of the comments seem to come off as rants against youth (“go play your Xbox“?) and startup culture and not a defense of the language’s health itself. I haven’t seen the younger generation of Java pros, but I know they are out there. I don’t seem to see Java enthusiasts attacking faults in the alternative languages or praising Java for a superior feature set.
Some comments seem to admit that Java has some shortcomings just like other languages, but it’s what we have for now. That is good enough for some people – particularly those that have been in Java for a long time – but not good enough for many developers who want to work with the best available. The arguments so far have been, in no particular order:
Argument #1 – Don’t Use Alternative Languages Because The Languages are Unproven, and/or Only Startups Use Alternative Languages
“And, don’t forget, 70% of startups will fail within the first ten years. So, I’m not inclined to base my decisions on the faulty and unproven ability of start-ups to make sound business decisions for themselves.” – Comment from TSS reader, click for full context
Some of the languages are more proven than others obviously, but we can’t ignore the fairly regular news regarding established firms transitioning to alternative languages and platforms or taking a polyglot approach. I would hardly call companies like Twitter, YouTube, foursquare, LinkedIn and Google immature startups at this point. If you are going to argue that there are plenty of other shops that use Java, we all know that. The point is some startups (those most apt to use these alternative languages) have made bad decisions (as have large firms), but to call the languages themselves ‘unproven’ at this point would not be accurate. No guilt by association here.
Businesses don’t make decisions, people do. I don’t think we should fall into the trap of lumping together the decisions made inside of some startups as any proof of language relevance at this point. When a host of startups fail due to their language choice alone, that conversation can be had.
If you were around back in the late nineties there were a lot of technology startups with funny sounding dot-com names. Many of these companies were using a three or four year-old programming language called Java. They could not have predicted that Java would grow to be as popular as it is today.
Note: Python is older and Ruby is about the same age as Java, Scala has been around for 9 years, Clojure for 5 years.
Argument #2 – If You’re Bored With Java, That Is No Reason To Branch Out
“Becoming “bored or frustrated with Java” is a pretty poor excuse for branching out. As a professional, I’m not paid to feel entertained and broadened in my horizons. I’m paid to get things done as efficiently and as well as I possibly can… Go home and play your Xbox to relieve boredom. Don’t make your employer pay for yet another language learning curve so that you feel less bored and frustrated.” – Comment from TSS reader, click for full context
Simply being bored with Java could be enough for someone to look for other alternatives. I think the bigger issue is that technologists who pay attention to developments in other languages are envious of the features that other languages provide. Today, I feel that a smaller percentage of the Java community explore alternative languages based either on less curiosity or less opportunity. As the Java community at large is exposed to these other languages more and more, I would expect you will see many more defectors. The early adopters of Java were the most curious C++ or C developers who were looking for something different and stumbled on Java, and the most curious of Java pros stumbled on these other languages over the past few years.
Argument #3 – The Assumption That Most or All Of These Alternative Languages Will Be Dead In 5-10 Years
“If I’m off learning optional languages, I’m falling short of what I get paid to do. What’s more, I may have decided to do some development in one of the latest and greatest languages that, in a few years, will fall by the wayside, and now I’ve left my employer with a bunch of projects that will have to be re-written into a language that is currently active and supported.” – Comment from TSS reader, click for full context
Many of the early adopters of Java, as I mentioned in my article, have already been exploring some of these alternative languages for some time now. Often they were not initially paid to do so. Could some of these languages be dead in 5-10 years? Sure. Most of the languages I’m thinking of when I talk about alternative languages are already 5 years old, and some much older. Even the young Ruby/Rails combo has been around for over 5 years.
Did people make the same assumption about Java back in the late nineties?
Argument #4 – Look At The Evidence That These Alternative Languages Are Not Being Adopted/Used/Sought After
Some defenders of Java have been pointing me to various statistics as proof that these alternative languages are not being used, not being sought after by employers, or not being adopted. I would cede that none of the current crop are even close to Java in terms of popularity today. I was sent to this link from Networkworld.com that says Java developers are the “most difficult tech pros to land, followed by mobile developers“. I wonder where the demand for mobile developers was three years ago? Would mobile development be a valuable skill to learn at this point?
As a recruiter, I’m also having a bit of a harder time finding Java developers now. One of the main reasons for that is pretty simple – a lot of the people that I know that used to do Java work aren’t interested in doing Java work any more. Over the years I’ve met a fair amount of experienced Java developers that were dying to get a job doing mobile work, Ruby work, Scala work, etc., but I’m not finding too many Ruby or Scala programmers with five years out of school looking for their first Java job. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see that…ever.
Another link was given to the Tiobe Index, which is pretty widely used to highlight trends of language popularity. It is based on search engine hits. All indexes like this have some obvious flaws. If you read Tiobe’s Definition, the phrase “Java programming is dead” will actually improve Java’s position in the rankings. So absorb these ratings with that in mind. They measure chatter, which could be positive or negative.
Well, the takeaway from this graphic, for me anyway, would be that Java dropped significantly and Objective-C seems to be gaining popularity dramatically. But this could be some anomaly in a given month.
“Java has slid only recently and barely while the much touted JVM languages aren’t even on the radar” – Comment from Dzone.com reader, click for full context
The green line that is Java seems to be trending downward on a fairly regular basis since ’02. I’m not sure I’d refer to a 10 year decline as ‘recent’ in the technology industry. Again, I don’t think the Tiobe index is the ultimate indicator, but I wouldn’t point someone to this statistic to support an argument that Java is healthy.
Objective-C wasn’t listed in 1997, was ranked #46 in 2007, and now stands at #3 on the index. If you had picked up Objective-C a few years ago, say in ’07 when it was not entirely popular, you would probably be doing well today as the demand for iOS work is quite high and the supply of developers is quite low. In ’97, Java was #5 – one spot behind VB and two spots behind COBOL.
The arguments against learning a new language or using a new language in production were probably the same back in the late nineties when Java was still new. People surely came to the defense of C and C++ saying that we didn’t need a new language then. It’s progress and subsequent resistance to change, and in the technology industry change can sneak up on you pretty quickly if you aren’t paying attention.
I feel that many in the Java community may not be paying close attention.
If you were a C++ programmer messing around with applets back in ’96, you’ve already been through this transition once. What I’m hearing now from experienced folks is that these alternative languages are for start-ups, “Trix are for kids!“. I know quite a few gray haired former Java developers that are getting paid to write code in other languages now, and I think they would tell you that the alternative language market isn’t just for kids. Were you using Java in a start-up back in the day – were you one of the kids?
My purpose in writing these posts is to make a certain element of the Java community aware of what is out there, and that in my opinion now is an opportune time based on external market forces to explore other languages. This is not an attack on Java as a language or on the people that choose to write in Java. I’ve dedicated much of the past 12 years to the Java community and I don’t intend to change that now. I expect that I will be involved with Java professionals for several years, helping them to find jobs and scheduling great events for my JUG. I chose to change the focus of my business beyond Java, and my suggestion to Java professionals would be to at least consider and research doing the same.