Fear is the mind-killer

Dune is probably my favourite science-fiction novel of all time. It's in a cool settings, with some really well-designed characters, and is a sprawling epic in the way that sprawling epics should be. In that book, the main character Paul Atreides learns the ways of the mysterious Bene Gesserit through his mother. One of the things he learns is called the litany against fear, something they say to themselves whenever they are in danger:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Living on the bleeding edge of technology means you spend a lot of time trying to convince the people around you that this awesome bit of technology that you've noticed is worth investigating. I remember being mocked and dismissed over my thoughts on memcached in 2003. And being mocked and dismissed on my thoughts on how valuable writing automated tests could be for an out-of-control code base in 2004. It's now 2011 and both of those things are considered integral parts of best practices for web applications.

Some of the problems I faced were due to an abrasive personality very early in my programming career (although some would argue that not much has changed) that resulted in ideas being rejected because of who the messenger is. Let's be honest, we've all done that: dismissed information because of who was delivering it. I've gotten used to facing the uphill battle to get my particular set of programming practices accepted but it is a battle I'm winning.

But there is often another reaction to new technologies. That reaction is fear. Fear of working with a set of technologies they are not comfortable with. Fear of automated systems deploying code that might not be adequately tested. Fear of putting effort into things that provide very little benefit in the short-term but lots of benefits in the long-term. Fear is the mind-killer, the little voice in your head telling you that you are not good enough, that your ideas are crap, that you have no idea what you're talking about.

Seth Godin talks about how when a technology has been labeled dead that the real cool stuff can happen with it. PHP has been labeled dead by the "drive-by technorati" that Mr. Godin talks about, despite the fact that it still well-positioned as a tool to be used when building web applications. At the same time, I can feel that tickle of fear in my brain. "Don't get left behind" is whispers to me. "Drop PHP for Technology X" it pleads to me. When the voice gets too loud, I start reciting the litany against fear. There is still lots of innovation to be done within PHP itself. Each successive release of PHP is getting faster and (quite correctly) implementing features that have made other scripting languages interesting. Exhibit A? Anonymous functions, allowing for some very interesting code to be written. It's an integral part of the newest breed of frameworks.

Don't let fear dictate the technologies you use. Today, I am most comfortable building web applications using PHP with some Javascript thrown in to improve the user experience. Tomorrow, it will be a different story. Not literally tomorrow. You know what I mean. I've been adding Python, Django, Flask, and Google App Engine to the skill set. To be blunt, being a mono-ecosystem (ie PHP only) specialist is a very risky for someone with the "Jack of all trades" career path such as mine. Far better to be standing on the shoulders of giants than to just stay only where you are comfortable.

I guess the point I'm trying to get across is that you can use the litany against fear as a tool to motivate to truly analyze your reactions to situations. For example, I'm having a very hard time figuring out how to get Zend Framework + PHPUnit to adequately test the ability of an application at work to use Facebook Connect. I just can't get it to do things with a regular request, for a bunch of reasons I'm unable to understand. I can't peer inside the request to the extent I would like. I foresee having to drop down a level in the application and admit that I cannot test the request itself, but the code that is executed after control is returned to the application.

Fear would say "give up because it's too hard to properly test things". The reality is that while I cannot test the output of the request, I can certainly test what is supposed to be going on behind the scenes. Tests like that are just as valuable as being able to capture the response from a request and verify that elements exist in the DOM as expected. Perhaps one day there will be better tools in PHP to accomplish this task. I know it can be done using other tools and I'll be honest here: it makes me bark out a few choice words about the state of PHP testing tools.

So, here's my second Idea of March: Fear is the mind-killer for your skill-set.