Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Losing Your Religion

Ever meet someone who screams at you that windows completely stinks and linux is the only operating system anyone should ever use? I did.

I get a kick out of driving around and spotting how many Chevy pickups I can find with the stickers on the cab where Calvin (from Calvin and Hobbes comics) is peeing on a Ford logo. Needless to say, you find a similar number of Ford pickups with Calvin peeing on Chevy logo - apparently, Calvin is an unbiased, no-nonsense pee-er and simply pees on whatever is put before him. Go Calvin.

In the few times I have spoken to owners of such vehicles, their views were generally vehemently true to their sticker. That is, if Calvin was peeing on a Ford logo, the owner was a devout Chevy owner - “Always owned Chevy, always WILL own Chevy.” What I’ve always failed to figure out is where the loyalty came from. Even the corporations themselves don’t seem to poopoo each other as much as these zealots do. At least not using an explicit urinary metaphor.

If I ask a sticker-owner why one is better than another, I always get passionate but mostly vacuous answers. “Ford’s are WAY better than Chevy’s.” or “Chevy’s are made like crap!” or from the other side “Fords suck! Didn’t you see Calvin peeing on them?!” Obviously, someone is wrong here. I'm no truck expert, but both companies seem to sell enough trucks to stay in business. Neither could be that far behind the other, and I imagine that like most product competition - if one gets ahead of the other, it isn't long before the trailing product to copy the features of the leader putting them in line again.

Certainly, Ford lovers hang with Ford lovers and Chevy lovers hang with Chevy lovers. I can’t say for sure if that’s because they were a Ford lover and sought out other Ford lovers or, they made a friend who converted them. Regardless, there is some truck-religion here that appears to have a dubious basis at best.

All this zealotry reminded me of a class I taught last December for a company in Ohio (Ford country! by the way). The students were quite adept and we didn’t waste any time getting to the material. One student however seemed to be having a few issues with his lab computer. Apparently, he was a linux zealot (this is just a guess, but read on)

He had no business being in my class really since he pretty much knew everything we covering and if he didn’t know it, he picked it up fast enough that I couldn’t tell. In other words, he seemed to be the kind of guy you like to have working for you. At one point however, he threw up his hands and exclaimed “how does ANYONE get anything done in this operating system!” (I think he was being rhetorical).

The statement struck me for a second. The lab computers were windows based - no one had any say in that, the training department of this company apparently just proclaimed it. From his statement I assumed (and later verified) that his desktop computer was linux. I guess I’m proud of myself for not giving him a snappy answer. Like “I dunno, try asking one of the billion people that use it everyday - want me to get my mom on the phone?”.

His statement was truly na├»ve and obviously based on his linux zealotry, not fact. First off, obviously he wasn’t truly lamenting that he couldn’t figure out something about windows, he was truly saying “This doesn’t work the way I want!” Funny thing was, we were doing Java, certainly he should have been able to adapt. Whatever editor he uses in linux (turned out to be emacs) is likely available in windows. Cygwin (www.cygwin.com) would give him a identical shell if the ms-dos box didn’t satisfy the minimal requirements we needed it for. If he liked Eclipse (www.eclipse.org) or Ant (http://jakarta.apache.org) all that runs seamlessly on windows too.

On top of that he only had to plunk on this machine for a few days. I wonder if one of those Chevy guys would throw such a fuss if forced to drive a Ford rental for just a few days. This guy was obviously bright, but his unfounded religious view was disappointing. It certainly precluded my interest in asking his opinion about computing matters. It would be like asking an insurance salesman about his competitors - the answer will biased and the facts concealed or enhanced as he saw fit.

I really don’t get this whole computing-religion thing. Personally, I have 2 windows boxes, 2 linux boxes, and 1 VMWare’d (http://www.vmware.com) linux running on one of my windows boxes as needed. If you count my girlfriend’s design machines I have 2 macs too (designers are an entirely different religious sect, they somehow still believe that even though the exact same apps exist for PC and Mac, they “really” only work on macs).

I have all those boxes (I think) because I love to tinker and I especially like to have the right tool for the job. This website is running on linux and this article was typed in Microsoft Word. I don’t see room for religion in the computing world. I can’t see a good reason to not simply use the “best” solution. Mind you, the “best” solution is situational. Feel free to tell me how wonderful linux is, but my Mom is going to use Windows no matter what you say. When I setup a scad of little servers, I’d probably choose Linux first because I can set them up fast. It would probably be my second choice too based on price (i.e. free).

I’m sure Microsoft’s IIS server is wonderful and probably terribly easy to configure (I have no idea), but I know how to setup Apache. I know plenty of its idiosynchrasies and its nasty little text-based config files. Generally, for servers I use linux, for desktop I use Windows. I develop in Emacs regardless of the O/S I’m using. I solve problems. I use the best tools that I know how to use to solve those problems. Price, existing knowledge, features are all factors in that decision. Religion isn’t. The guy in my class back in Ohio knows his stuff, but after his display he's no longer the type of person I'd want working for me. There are a lot of talented folks out there who base decisions based on their knowledge, not their passion.

If you’re forcing a solution on your customers (or users) than I guess that’s your prerogative. Computers don’t care, they crunch numbers. Go ahead and hate Microsoft if it turns you on. My friend Christian Gross (www.devspace.com) is famous (to me anyway) for advocating that humans have an underdog mentality. We always root for the underdog, until they become more successful than we “think” they should be.

In other words, feel free to hate Microsoft, but if they tumble you’re just going to start hating someone else.

I’m sure there are physical differences between Ford and Chevy trucks that make one better than the other for certain applications. If I was in the market for a truck, I’d guarantee you I’d figure out what those were. Regardless, I wouldn’t really worry about what Calvin decided to pee on today.

Technology is technology and problems are problems. I have hired religious developers before and its an unfortunate trait. It basically becomes a “management challenge”. I want to solve my customer’s problems and I want to make recommendations that aren't based on mindless zealotry, but instead are based on what will work best for them. Imagine that.

1 comment:

originalfnerd said...

Hispanic Guy: Which is better, Windows or Mac?

Friend of mine: Well, you know, it's like Ford or Chevy.

HG: Yeah, but which is Chebby, man?

The thing you missed about your Linux- leaning student is this: because he was not immersed in the Windows religion, he was freshly sensitive to problems in Windows. You should have asked him what his particular frustration was. I ask this of computer- frustrated people and generally I learn something, I feel like apologizing for the whole computer industry, and I can't think of a quick fix.

A Linux programmer might have a more useful perspective-- maybe including a reasonable fix-- than a non- programmer would. Or, maybe not. Just saying you seem to judge the guy a little prematurely.

How does anybody get anything done in Windows, or an any modern OS for that matter? They bang their head, they stumble around in darkness, confusion and pain, and they either find the trick and memorize it, or someone else who knows tells them. Then, whenever they are in that same situation again, they act like an obedient, well trained monkey and repeat the trick they've learned.

Later, if a newcomer monkey complains near a trained monkey, the trained monkey says, "What's the problem? You just have to do X."

Eventually it's like the movie They Live. We (at least I do) become inured, and then blind, to problems.

Be careful your ecumenism doesn't slide into nose- to- the- grindstone acceptance of the status quo. (I've ranted about that before).
Standing against worldly powers is one of the useful things religious people do.

Feeling like the Grinch, avoiding wrapping presents.