Innovation For Its Own Sake?

I fell victim to bright and shiny thinking years ago, when I adopted C++ as the new and improved way of doing things. It was, as I’d heard it, the much better C. No questions asked. Never mind that it had only been around a year or two. Pretty soon I was trying to do everything the object-oriented way. I was drawn to its new shiny coolness, but didn’t stop to ask whether I was actually being more productive. Long story short, I wasn’t. I ended up spending a lot more time arbitrarily “object orientifying” code that didn’t warrant it. As it turned out, C++ became a very useful systems language. It took time to evolve, however, and time for programmers to build a sufficient culture around using it well.

With the fanfare surrounding a new platform or tool, what’s new can supplant what’s proven. That might be OK, but on the other hand it can sometimes end up costing early adopters an unforeseen whack of money. I remember with great fondness the advent of Direct 3D in 1995. At the time I was part of a team building a video game that would take advantage of this new, state-of-the-art library. Unfortunately due to its immaturity, Direct 3D actually decelerated the speed of the game’s graphics. And we’d invested heavily in it. In retrospect, we could have used our existing in-house software library and crafted something interesting from it. It was the devil we knew.

Time and time again, it’s usually the developer’s skill with a toolset that fosters the most productivity. An older, wiser programmer once relayed to me his observation, over more than 35 years, that the software world doesn’t actually change very quickly. It may however seem that way, because of the many surface ripples and bubbles. New tools and paradigms take time to take hold, and some never do. Proven concepts, processes, pitfalls, tools, and languages remain remarkably stable. Clever algorithms are forever.

None of that is to downplay the need for real innovation, and real evolution. Some of it is truly good. The iPad for example, as a new form of human interaction with information, is a game changer. I’m not going out on much of a limb when I imagine that touch-based software interfaces will evolve to become a big component of the software world’s “oldies-but-goodies”. It’s also reasonable to expect that a world with a gazillion connected computers would evolve with new metaphors, paradigms, and their attendant tools (the “Cloud” notion, for instance). Still, with each new revolution or evolution, it’s wise to try and balance the risk with a good-sized portion of experience, maturity, and adherence to concepts that have a solid track record.

  1. Chris, thanks for the strong word on warning about jumping into new technology too quick and abandoned our old, hard to acquire background knowledge. This is very true that the older you get, the wiser you are. Even though you are not faster in this moment; but with the experience, you are faster in the overall pace. The wisdom is about, avoid to repeat the same mistaken over again, which make us faster.

    Benny Cheung
    Aug 19th, 2010

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