Is There Life After TJ?


What is going to happen now?
Nothing. We will be sad for a while, then we will move on.


Mad Men, Don Drapper discusses Kennedy assassination with kids

Every once in a while a event occurs that pushes regular programming aside. If you are CNN, it happens with such annoying regularity that completely obviates the meaning of the phrase “breaking news”. Nevertheless, if you are at least a bit involved with the Node.js community, the news that TJ Holowaychuk turned his back on Node in favour of Go restores breaking news’ original meaning.

Up to this point Node.js had a bit of a problem with TJs as soon as TJ Fontaine assumed the post of Node.js lead. You had to add the last name to disambiguate, leading to a no TJ slide at a recent NodeDay. Before Fontaine, the real slim TJ authored such a monstrous number of Node.js modules (some of which, like Express, Jade and Mocha, being wildly popular), that there is a semi-serous thread on Quora that he is not a real person. Proof: total absence from the conference-industrial complex, no pictures, no videos, and inhumane coding output that suggest an army of ghost coders. Also, an abrupt change in import declaration style in 2013.

My first encounter with TJ (metaphorically speaking) was in the summer of 2012, when we evaluated Node.js for our project. Our team lead noticed that an unusually large cluster of modules needed to convert us from a servlet/JSP back end was authored by a single person. There was something unnerving about moving from software written by an army of big company developers to something written by a kid with an Emo haircut and a colorful t-shirt (look like TJ was too busy coding to notice that the official look is now beard and plaid shirt, and does not need prescription glasses to care about Warby Parker).

Unlike many people, I am also not completely gaga about his coding and documentation style. I never warmed up to Jade and Stylus – I spent many an hour tearing my hair out about some unexpected Jade behavior that turned out to be one tab or space too many. Dust.js we now use for our templating needs is much less susceptible to magic in the name of DRY.

Similarly, Express documentation is wonderfully minimalistic until you need some clarification, at which point you would gladly trend it for verbose but useful. Some of the Express APIs suffer from the same problem. You can ‘use’ all kinds of object types, and while ‘set’ is a setter, ‘get’ defines a route for an HTTP endpoint. Not that it matters anyway – an army of developers wrote the missing manual on Stack Overflow.

All this does not diminish the importance and the imprint that TJ left on the Node.js community. The Hacker News discussion was long and involved, with many participants trying to guess the ‘real reason’ behind the switch. Zef Hemel contemplated what he considers a ‘march toward Go’. Other people with an investment in Node.js commented as well:

[tweet 485132339362529280 align=’center’]

For anyone making a transition to Node.js and feeling the cold sweat of ‘buyer’s remorse’, I am offering the following opinion. In a brazen display of self-promotion, I will quote none other than myself from one of my previous posts:

It was always hard for me to make choices. In the archetypical classification of ‘satisficers’ and ‘maximizers’, I definitely fall into the latter camp. I research ad nauseum, read reviews, measure carefully, take everything into account, and then finally make a move, mentally exhausted. Then I burst into cold sweat of buyer’s remorse, or read a less than glowing review of the product I just purchased, and my happiness is dimished. It sucks to be me.

My point here is as follows: at any point in time, there will be many ways to solve your particular software problem. Chances are, you have spent a lot of time researching before pulling the plug on Node.js. You have made the switch, and your app or site is working well, purring like a kitten. I don’t think your app will suddenly start misbehaving just because TJ got a case of code rage. In fact, the signs were on the wall for quite some time because his twitter feed was all ‘Node.js errors this, Node.js errors that’ – lots of frustration about some very arcane details I didn’t understand at all.

If anything, this case teaches us a lesson that it does not pay to search for a language Messiah – a language/platform to end all languages/platforms. As it became plainly obvious, the future is polyglot, and Go is appearing as a growing alternative for writing apps for distributed systems. Even by TJ’s admission, Node.js is still a great choice for Web sites, as well as API services. For example, a whole class of page rendering template libraries are hard to replicate in Go (Mustache, Handlebars, Dust), and so are the building and testing solutions (Grunt, Mocha, Jasmine).

Node.js was never positioned as a platform for solving all kinds of computational problems, and even before Go, distributed systems had apps written in stacks other than Node.js. I think attempts to render Node.js as a solution for every problem were always misguided and no serious member of the Node.js community made such claims. As long as you use Node.js for what it is very good for – page serving apps and API services with a lot of I/O (and not too many CPU intensive, long running tasks), there is no need for TJH to somehow make your app less ‘correct’.

If, on the other hand, you are impressionable and must check out Go right away, by all means do, but if you keep putting all your eggs in a new and shiny basket, people like TJH will continue to stress you out as they move on to another new and shiny language or platform.

If you feel a need to solve a problem that Node.js is failing to solve or is not suitable for, and Go or Scala or any other solution fit the bill, by all means go ahead and use them. Otherwise, move along, people – nothing to see here. We wish TJ all the best in the Go future, while we continue to focus on our own problems and challenges.

I guess that means a ‘Yes, of course’ to the question in the title.

© Dejan Glozic, 2014

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