May 24, 2016
From nczonline.net, with love.

Library Agnosticism

Hi everyone,

One of the worst arguments for using a particular library is, "because that's what people want to use." I've seen this happen over and over again in my career, where developers choose JavaScript/CSS/other libraries or frameworks believing that this will enable them to hire more people and keep their own developers happy. While this holds true for choices of technology (using Node.js, using AWS, etc.), the same can't be said for libraries that exist within a technology stack. Why? Because libraries often have very short lifecycles (technologies have longer lifecycles), and tying your success to that lifecycle is a gamble.

When I worked at Yahoo, the company was entirely YUI-centric. No one would have dared to slip jQuery into their web application for fear of being a social outcast. I loved the atmosphere because it was one where everyone in the company was contributing to make YUI the best it could be and we were never slowed down by, "what library should we use?" discussions. And even though we were using a library that wasn't the library, we had no problem hiring.

The trick to our hiring ease? We didn't ask people to use YUI during the interview. There was no reason -- we knew that most candidates wouldn't know the library by heart. What we did instead was ask candidates to solve their problems without using a library. We wanted to see if people understood the fundamental concepts of web development rather than one specific implementation of it. Doing that, we could filter out the people who were overly reliant on libraries and therefore would have a hard time making the transition. Further, we knew that if people understood fundamental concepts, we could easily teach them how those concepts were implemented in YUI. 

The end result was that we were able to hire people who were strong front-end engineers even when they couldn't use their library of choice. That made things even easier when we went through the transition for YUI 2 to YUI 3, which had a completely different API. Because our engineers weren't overly-reliant on one specific library, they were able to make the transition to a new library without much trouble. People didn't leave in protest, and generally people didn't feel stuck.

To this day, I am weary of engineers who apply for or promote jobs working with specific libraries. When you hire library-specific developers, you're often put into difficult personnel decisions when the library has to change. Sometimes you end up with people who just can't function without that library, and other times you can end up with people who just don't want to work with something else. The choice of library should always be based solely on the technical advantage that the library gives to your project, not on popularity or prospective new developers. As engineers, the thing that makes us most attractive to employers is our ability to learn and adapt, and it's those who continue to learn and adapt that ultimately have successful, long careers.

Be well.

-N
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