• Process Notes: Twenty Years of Not Writing Python

    12 February 2024

    I recently shipped some client work - a small prototyping project - written in Python. Which is surprising, given I would say - if asked - that “I don’t write Python“.

    A lot of people write a lot of Python these days. It’s a common teaching language; it’s a lingua franca for machine learning and data science; it’s used as a scripting language for products I use such as Kicad or Blender. But it’s passed me by. I first wrote Ruby in 2004, which I still love, and that’s served my needs as a general-purpose scripting language, as well as a language for building web applications (with Rails). These days, I’ll also write a lot of Typescript. I don’t really need another scripting language.

    Given that “I don’t write Python“… why did I just ship a project in it, and how did I do that?

    First of all: why Python for this project?

    I needed something that could write to a framebuffer from a command-line, running in an event-driven style. I also needed something that could be used cross-platform, and wouldn’t be too hard for anyone else to pick up. Given this was a prototyping project, ease of manipulation and modification were important, so an interpreted language with no build step would be helpful. As would good library and community support. pygame looked like it would be a very good fit for our project.

    Whilst I wouldn’t admit to writing Python, it turns out I had a fairly strong ambient knowledge of it already. I knew its basic syntax, and was used to its module-style imports via Typescript. I was well aware of its lack of braces and significant whitespace. And someone who loves functional-style code, I was already a big fan of was list comprehensions.

    I paired that ambient knowledge with a couple of core programming skills.

    Firstly : my experience of other event-driven languages and platforms (like Processing, p5js, and openFrameworks) meant I was already familiar with the structure the code would need. An imperative, event-driven structure is going to be pretty similar whether you’re writing in Processing or pygame; I tend to write these with as small a main loop as possible, and then core functions for “set up all the data for this frame” and “render this frame”, broken down as appropriate. You can smell the porting in my code, plus I’m sure I could be more idiomatic, but structure is structure; this meant we began with solid foundations.

    Next: reading documentation. pygame has good documentation, and thanks to its maturity, there’s a lot of online resources for it - not to mention excellent resources for Python itself. That, combined with good experience of usefully parsing error message got us a long way.

    Modern tooling helps a lot:

    • language support in editors/IDEs has gotten really good; the Language Server Protocol means that developer support for interpreted languages is better than it’s ever been. More than just spicy syntax-highlighting, its detailed and comprehsnive support is exactly what you want as an “experienced, but not in this language” developer.
    • What about ChatGPT?“ This is not an article about how I wrote code without knowing how, all thanks to ChatGPT, I’m afraid. But one thing I have begun to occasionally use it for is as a rubberduck; a “Virtual Junior Developer.” “I’m looking for an equivalent to Ruby’s x in Python. Can you explain that to me, knowing that I’m an experienced Ruby developer?“. It usually won’t give me precisely what I’m looking for. But it will give me something in the ballpark that suddenly unblocks me - much like a good pairing partner might. Sometimes, that’s why I need.
    • A rubbderduck I find much more useful is Github Copilot. Again, I don’t think its strength is the “write code for me” functionality. Instead, I most like its ability to provide smart, contextual autocomplete. That’s doubly useful in loosely typed languages, where language servers can be limited in their recommendations in a way that LLMs aren’t limited by. I’m particularly grateful for Copilot as a solo developer; it feels like a pairing partner chipping in with ideas, which, even when they’re not right, at least steer me in a new direction. I’ve found Copilot particularly speeds development up later on in a project. As the codebase gets larger, its intuition becomes more developed.

    The combination of core competencies, modern tooling, and a well-established platform enabled us to not only motor through the initial porting process, but achieve our further goals, with space and time left for polish and improvement within the budget. The final codebase met the client’s needs: it worked well cross-platform, was straightforward (thanks to virtualenv) to get up and running on a colleague’s development computer, and is a good foundation for future work.

    Programming work - I hesitate to say “creative programming” because all programming is creative - is about much more than just ‘knowing a language’, and this project was a great example of that.

    Much more important is knowing how to learn new languages (and how you best learn new things); understanding patterns common to styles of language; maintaining good code hygiene and great documentation; and finding ways to steer yourself in the right direction - whether that’s a partner to pair with, the right developer tool, a good online resource, or even a modern application of AI.

    My evaluation at the beginning of the project had been validated. As I’d suspected, actively choosing to work in a new-to-me platform was not a risk. It turned out to be exactly the right tool for the job - a prototype where speed of iteration and flexibility were highly valued.

    That evaluation comes down to something I often describe as a sense of smell; a combination of expertise, personal taste, and ‘vibes’. Perhaps it’s easier just to call that experience. It turns out that “twenty years of writing software” beats the fact that almost none of it has been Python.

    We wrapped this small project last week, and I enjoyed my exposure to Python as a more experienced developer. I also valued being reminded me of what experience feels like, and what it enables: good judgment, flexibility, and focusing on the project’s outcomes, rather than getting lost in implementation.