Alt.NET Never Went Away

“Two long posts in two days? What gives?”. Hello, Dear Reader. I’m late to the party, and those who know me know I usually have some sort of comment bursting to come out. Also, these things are important to me, my career, frankly my ability to put a roof over my childrens’ heads. I hope it makes vaguely interesting reading. Don’t worry, while I’ve decided to put more effort into blogging, I won’t be able to keep up this schedule. ūüôā

Alt.SAYWHAT?

Personally I was late and missed the movement that was Alt.NET. I eventually got¬†to .NET via¬†VB.NET in 2004 and C# a year or so later. When Alt.NET was “happening”, I was still newish and hadn’t yet outgrown the Microsoft-supplied default environment (although I had stopped installing the MSDN library from the disk). I had no idea there was a community. I’d never even heard of such a thing as a “user group”.

Alt.NET by Accident

However, despite not actually joining the Alt.NET movement, I still ended up looking outside the “out-of-the-box” experience eventually.¬†Yes I’ve used WinForms, SQL Server, DataSets, WPF, ASMX, WCF, WebForms (yuck), but I’ve also used NServiceBus, Dapper, GetEventStore, RavenDB, JavaScript. I use Vim as my text editor, and ReSharper+VsVim when I do use Visual Studio. When I did a spike with Neo4j a couple of years back, I installed Eclipse and used Java instead of bloody-mindedly sticking with the .NET client libraries. I’ve tried Rider and I like it. I’ve seen where I can do better than CRUD in places and implemented DDD, CQRS, Event Sourcing.¬†In personal projects I’ve had a bit of a go at Python and Node.js, among others.

I realise I’m sounding¬†massively big-headed here, while¬†trying to illustrate my breadth-firstedness. Allow¬†me balance that by admitting I’m not the world’s greatest programmer by a long chalk, but I believe in being aware of as much as possible and hopefully knowing things just well enough to know what, where, why, when and how¬†to look deeper¬†when necessary. That’s more difficult now than I’ve ever found it.

Bring Back Alt.NET?

While the Alt.NET movement may have passed into history, its values remain. Do we need to bring it back? I don’t think so. Should we remember it and refresh our collective memory, for our own benefit and the benefit of those coming into our industry? Yes, absolutely.

You see Alt.NET as a concept never died. It simply became the new status quo. People are now used to looking away from Microsoft for solutions. There is a problem that needs addressing, however. While the Alt.NET mindset is about looking outside for inspiration and bringing it back, or integrating it, the same does not appear to be the case from the other direction.

We need more balance.

The values we should be promoting these days should be inclusive. We don’t want .NET User Groups, Python User Groups, Java User Groups (is there even such a thing?) DevOps User Groups, ServerLess User Groups. We need Software Development User Groups. One big happy nerdy community of like-minded individuals sharing neat things. Whatever platform you’re on, don’t be afraid or too arrogant to look around and see what other platforms/languages/communities have on offer, and offer your own ideas. We’re not on opposite ends of a see-saw any more,¬†it’s a huge flat surface balanced on a point, and we’re spread out all over it. And besides, if we all came together on one point in the centre, it’d still balance.

Quick note on the health of .NET

I blogged about waning attitudes towards .NET already so I won’t revisit that here. The real question is: is .NET itself dying? My answer? I don’t know but I hope not and I suspect not overnight. I don’t believe the hyperbole of anti-Microsoft types, locked in their echo chamber, but I’m not naive enough to believe it’ll just live forever, and I recognise I’m in an echo chamber of my own, so I leave the door open and sit on the porch as often as possible.

So far I’ve only found one person¬†who’s bothered to actually try and analyse the situation. His results suggest .NET might be losing momentum “on the server”, hence the suggestion for a renaissance – a rejuvenation of sorts, but while interest might be waning, that doesn’t mean it’s any less capable.

.NET can make a huge comeback on the server with¬†cross-platform .NET Core, containerisation, serverless, the cloud, and since any problem can be solved with a layer of indirection, I suggest we leave the too-specific term “Alt.NET” itself behind, and stand behind a wider philosophy of inclusion, balance, humility. A kind of “Alt.DEV”, if you will.

Why so Anti-Microsoft Lately?

There is much negative feeling about Microsoft from some in the dev community of late. Either that or .NET Core just happens to have given them fresh ammunition for Twitter.

I suppose like many large¬†companies, they have over time made asshole moves in an effort to make as much money as possible. They have attempted to squash open source projects by releasing their own competitive efforts, knowing full well that the “dark matter developers” will likely adopt their solution, unaware¬†of the choices available to them (or simply content with what they’ve got). MS¬†could’ve invested effort in OpenRasta, but instead built WebAPI. They could’ve invested effort in OpenWrap but instead built nuget (I don’t mean to pick on Seb here; they’re just the examples that sprung to mind). Not to mention the recent¬†debugging library fiasco.

However it’s not all bad. I believe that they have made, and continue to produce, some excellent tech. Visual Studio is excellent. C# is a great language, powerful but very usable and easy to learn. MVC is good. WebAPI is good. Even Entity Framework 5+ is great now (but do yourself a favour and use the EF Reverse POCO Generator tool). Xaml is excellent and powerful (but much too verbose). Nuget is okay. Well, it solves what was a massive problem, and only introduces a little friction to pay for it. It’s adoption for other things, like Octopus Deploy, mean it’s actually quite useful.

On top of this, there are some great¬†libraries/frameworks built on .NET. NServiceBus is a particular favourite of mine, but there’s NancyFx, RavenDB, Json.NET, RestSharp.

.NET itself is and has been ideal for many things, both on the server and the desktop. That is not rendered false just because there is now more choice.

While I suppose I would be labelled as a .NET developer currently, I’m actually¬†interested in balance and open-mindedness, rather than outright¬†pushing MS. I don’t believe that equality means¬†overbalancing the scales the other way.

Some take the attitude that if you’re still on .NET, your career is dying. .NET itself is dying. .NET Core is failure. One person even suggested Windows has no future. There’s an attitude from some that one is¬†a bad developer and should use Go/Rust/Python/Scala/Java/LOLCODE. You should not use Windows. These people usually have some compelling war story or other, but rarely have anything objective¬†to back it up, and I’ve seen nothing that should induce panic ragequitting of the .NET platform.

.NET is merely one solution from many, and if you¬†decide against .NET for your project, do so not because you dislike the company, but because for your particular requirements it is not the best fit. Yes, .NET Core’s tooling progress has been a bit of a disaster while it works out what it wants to be. However, if you find yourself making architectural choices on a new project a year from now, you should be looking again at .NET Core to see if it’s right for you. Just because it’s not ready now doesn’t mean it won’t ever be, and you’d be remiss in your duties not to¬†bother finding out.

It’s not all about the language…

.NET and Microsoft is a PLATFORM. Learning new languages is easy. Learning their standard libraries is harder. Learning language¬†idioms is harder still. Learning how to build a scalable, robust app in your shiny new language that keeps it’s data in a store you’re not familiar with, on servers your team isn’t used to, and doing all that of that in an idiomatic way that won’t bite you in the ass in a few months’ time when its hard to change is a downright MAMMOTH task.

And it’s not all about you, either.

Remember if you have a team invested in .NET/Windows/Microsoft, that you can’t “just” start using Cassandra+RabbitMQ+Scala+Python+ReactJS on your next project. There is time needed for people to level-up on that tech – idioms learned, libraries chosen, spikes built and burned down. Perhaps new build tools to be purchased/deployed/understood/integrated/scripts written for. This is a big part of the consideration.

I’ve had people say of MS, .NET and related tech that “it’s a shitshow”, “there are better things”, “it’s dying”, “there’s no community”, “the libraries aren’t as good”, “there aren’t as many libraries”, “it’s legacy”. None of these statements really have anything to back them up, and one man’s magical solved-my-problem perfectly is another man’s OMG HOW DO EVEN TALK TO KAFKA WITH THIS? As a profession we’d do well to leave the prejudice behind and have some balance. Use what works and offers the best balance of learning/shiny and dependable/expedient.