As you may know, I help run the Sydney Alt.Net user group in Sydney with James Crisp. Jimmy Pelletier co-runs the Alt.Net group in Melbourne, and across Australia we’ve previously had groups in Brisbane and Perth as well.
Jimmy and I have been talking about the ‘branding’ of the user groups. Is Alt.Net still an appropriate name for the group? If we changed, what would make sense? Is Alt.Net still relevant in the current day and age we live.
First, a little history.
March 2007 - Microsoft releases Linq to Entities (aka Entity Framework). If we ignore Linq to SQL, this is Microsoft’s first serious attempt at an O/RM. Various developer MVPs look at it and don’t like what they see. They are used to NHibernate and are particularly upset about Entity Framework’s lack of persistence ignorance and the apparent disregard by the EF team for developers who might want to follow good design patterns in their application code.
There’s a good summary of the dispute for those who are interested.
April 2007 – David Laribee proposes the term “Alt.Net” as a name for the growing group of people who want to write good code, who are upset at Microsoft’s continuing long disregard for good development practices and those who are willing to look outside what Microsoft provides to see if there are better solutions. In other words, those people who don’t just blindly go along with whatever bad practices Microsoft was encouraging developers to follow and want to do things right.
October 2007 – An open spaces meeting for people who subscribe to the Alt.Net mindset is held in Austin, Texas.
November 2007 – Philadelphia holds the first ever Alt.Net user group meeting.
April 2008 – An Alt.Net open spaces event is held in Seattle. Microsoft’s home ground, It is well attended and further helps to define the Alt.Net movement and connect the people who are part of it.
June 2008 – Frustrated with Microsoft’s lack of change, and apparent disregard for those clamouring for improvements, the now infamous Entity Framework Vote of No Confidence appears. While this makes a number of people wonder if the Alt.Net movement is simply a home for ranty, angry people, the controversy further raises the profile of the Alt.Net movement.
September 2008 – The Sydney Alt.Net group starts (I can’t believe it’s been going for over 6 years now!). It’s safe to say that at this point there was a significant level of interest in the movement. Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth follow soon after. Similar groups are springing up worldwide.
March 2009 – The third Alt.Net open space is held in Seattle. Scott Hanselman points at the elephant in the room by asking the question “Alt.Net – Why so mean?” (video no longer available). The reactions from some of those in attendance show there is substance to the question and invokes some soul searching from many in the movement.
2009 – 2011 – A significant number of the people who started the Alt.Net movement continue to express frustration with Microsoft, and in particular EF and gradually drop out of the Microsoft ecosystem, generally moving to the new and shiny fad, Ruby on Rails. There’s a cargo-cult like spate of “I’m leaving .NET” blog posts that start appearing.
Fast forward to today
A majority of the people who started the Alt.Net movement have since moved on, either leaving the Microsoft ecosystem for other development pastures, or quietly dropping off the grid.
Even so, the spirit of Alt.Net continued on, gradually growing and spreading amongst developers so that the practices and approaches that were heavily talked about at the beginning of Alt.Net (i.e. SOLID principles, persistence ignorance, testability, etc.) have become all but mainstream.
We also see Microsoft making incredible adjustments to the way they treat developers. No longer is it about providing “monkey see, monkey do” tooling for the infamous “Morts”, They’re open sourcing their development, they’re taking community contributions for the core .NET framework, they’re out there in the open, developing completely naked and taking on all the feedback they can to ensure they give us, the customer, the products and tooling we want. This doesn’t yet apply to all teams or products, but the tide has turned. Unlike the dark days of 2007, Microsoft is not only listening to the community, but they are actively adjusting their plans based on what the community says. No longer does the stock standard response of “that’s good feedback” mean “I hear what you’re saying but I’m going to ignore you”, and that’s a great thing.
Credit for this cultural shift can be laid at the feet of Microsoft’s ASP.NET team and other vocal individuals within Microsoft who showed that an open approach and provision of tooling that supports good developer practices can result in much better products, higher engagement with the developer community and greater retention of developers in the Microsoft space. ASP.NET MVC, the Web API, SignalR and NuGet became shining examples of just how this works. Individuals such as Scott Guthrie (who announced ASP.NET MVC at an Alt.Net open space), Scott Hanselman, Phil Haack, Glenn Block, Jon Galloway and many others within Microsoft (too many to mention, sorry!) should be thanked for their tireless efforts swimming against the tide and bringing about the cultural changes we’ve seen.
The Future of Alt.Net
I don’t see that the mission has changed, nor do I think the mission will ever be “done”.
Why? Let’s go back and look at the definition of an Alt.Net developer, shall we?
You're the type of developer who uses whatever works while keeping an eye out for a better way.
Check. I don’t think we’ll ever be done with that. I’m always looking for better ways, and as device types and user interface continue to grow and expand we’ll need to keep on top of this. Mobile development anyone?
You reach outside the mainstream to adopt the best of any community: Open Source, Agile, Java, Ruby. In no way does Microsoft or the .NET community have a monopoly on good software development.
You're not content with the status quo. Things can always be more elegant, more mutable, and of higher quality. We're all experimenting with techniques to more closely connect the coding and testing to the business domain.
OK, so some of the examples are no longer relevant, but the fundamental idea remains the same. We can always do better. We want to embody continuous improvement both in ourselves and those around us.
You realize that tools are great, but they only take you so far. It's the principles and knowledge that really matter. The best tools are those that embed the knowledge and encourage the principles (for example, ReSharper). Furthermore, you feel that the most important qualities of a solution are maintainability and sustainability. Maintainable code means good design. Good design arises from the skilful application of design knowledge. The .NET community has been placing too much focus on learning API and framework details and not enough emphasis on design and coding fundamentals.
Does this definition of developer still apply? Yes!
Is the mission done? While we still have developers who fit this definition, I’d say not.
Has the momentum gone? No, though it has definitely slowed now that Microsoft is being more responsive.
I think what we’re seeing is that Alt.Net has moved into a different stage of the community life cycle than when it started. This is explained at http://www.psawa.com/Community_life_cycle.html and describes the following stages:
Establishment –> Action –> Maintenance –> Self-Evaluation –> Consolidation/Growth –> (Action…) –> Death
Alt.Net was established in 2007, action saw Microsoft change, and now we’re in a period of maintenance and have been for some time, operating under a leadership vacuum. If you were to ask “who are the key people in Alt.Net” who would you point at? I’m not sure. Not me, for sure – I just organise a local user group. I actually don’t know who to point to either and there in lies a problem. One that will either result in a gradual decline into the “Death” stage, or one that will trigger a “self-evaluation” leading to a new future for Alt.Net. Thus this blog post.
I think we need to refine our definition of what Alt.Net is all about. The mission to change Microsoft isn’t what it was originally about, though it quickly appeared to become that fairly early on. The mission is simple - pushing and encouraging each other to grow and improve. To be better. To achieve more with less. It’s not us against Microsoft (nor should it have ever been), It’s not us against Apple, or Google, or Facebook, or anyone else. It’s us against our worst enemies; ourselves.
Without each other to prod us along, to challenge our thinking, to check we’re not being lazy, etc. it’s all too easy to fall back into bad practices, to willingly accept the status quo, to stop being curious about other ways to do things and to be plain ol’ lazy.
So the angry young men and the “why so mean?” people of Alt.Net have since moved on. Fair enough. That just means we’ve learned as a community. We’ve grown. We’ve matured. That’s awesome! I love it! It means we’re doing what we set out to do. But is that enough now? Should we now disband?
I don’t think so. The Alt.Net mindset still isn’t mainstream. I still need others around me who will hold me accountable when I invariably do something stupid. I still need others around me who have different experiences from me that I can learn from. I still need others around me that think about problems differently than I who I can be inspired by. I still need what the Alt.Net community provides.
P.S. This isn’t the first time people in the community have self-evaluated. Ian Cooper wrote about this back in 2010 in “Wither Alt.Net?”