Library Only Programmers

One thing that always surprises me when trying to help other programmers is the depths people are willing to go to in order to avoid actually writing code. When I started programming, your first reaction on being given a problem was either to jump into code/design or to jump into research on how you’d code/design a solution. These days, that doesn’t seem to be the case- the first thing most people seem to do is to look for a library to do it for them. And it seems to be getting worse- nowdays they aren’t just looking at the built in language libraries, they’ll jump straight to github and try to find something there.

This isn’t a good change. I’m not going to argue that all libraries are bad- that’s obviously silly. But there are times and places to use libraries, and times not to. Every library is a black box. It’s a piece of code from who knows where with unknown limitations, compromises, tradeoffs, and bugs. Open source libraries let you figure all that out, but let’s be honest- you’re not going to read them. I don’t read them unless I’m debugging a problem inside of them, somebody who’s idea of programming is to find libraries and slam them together definitely isn’t. And let’s not get into commercial libraries and the great gaping security whole they present. I recently had a commercial library I was integrating into an app that was randomly crashing. The library was supposed to handle certain gestures in a certain way. It was crashing because I didn’t have internet permission in the app. According to the authors, it was trying to upload a debug log. Maybe it was- but I have no way to know for sure. Maybe it was uploading their contacts, or their gps location, or some other piece of private info. The problem is I don’t know, and short of reverse engineering their library I can’t know.

The worst thing about this trend is that in general the people who should least be doing this are the ones most likely to do it. It tends to be the younger generation of programmers who are the worst offenders. These are the people who would learn the most by doing things themselves. Any time you write code, you learn. If you use a library you learn… how to use that library. If you write the functionality of the library, you learn how to really do what the library does, you learn why it does it that way, you learn about all the knobs and whistles on the library and why they’re there. Your goal as a programmer should always be to completely understand the task you’re doing and how to do it. You will never get that by looking for a library whenever something takes a few lines of code. And if you don’t know why and how you’re doing things, you’ll never be able to fix things when something goes wrong.

So when should you consider using a library? I’d argue there’s only three cases where you should:

1)When something is really hard and you aren’t qualified to do it. For example, I wanted to write an app that needed OCR (optical character recognition) technology. Computer vision is an extremely complex discipline, its not a solved problem. Writing a good OCR algorithm would take months- if I had all the knowledge needed to write one (I don’t). So I downloaded a well known library for it. Another great example is encryption- if you write your own you’re going to write something exploitable. It’s rarely a mistake to use a library for this reason, your biggest risk is picking the wrong one to use.

2)When its the only way to access a resource. If I wanted to interact with Facebook, I’d use Facebook’s library. I can be fairly certain its well debugged, and the only other way to access that information would be to reverse engineer the library and replicate what it does. That would be an obvious waste of time. This is the one time you should definitely use a library.

3)When you know how to do something, but doing it well would take a long time. A good example of this is parsing a well known but complex file format. Recently I had an app that needed to draw and annotate pdf files. Doing this on my own would have taken a few weeks to write and a few months to debug. Buying a library allowed me to implement it in a few days. The trick here is to make sure you know what you need and make sure the library supports it up front. Switching libraries here or having to make major modifications to it to add or change how it works will have a huge cost- possibly a higher cost than just doing it on your own from the beginning. A great example of that comes from the same app- I needed a color picking dialog. None is built into Android and it would have been boring to write, so I picked one online and popped it in. A week later we decided we needed one with transparency capability. The library didn’t have one. So now not only did I waste a day researching libraries and implementing one, I had to rewrite it on my own anyway. It took me a day to write. I would have been better off going on my own.

I know I’m going to get someone here with the feedback “But Gabe, if you write it yourself there will be bugs!”. Maybe. But using a library doesn’t eliminate bugs- libraries have bugs too. Sometimes those bugs are on you because you misused the library. Sometimes they’re on the library author. In either case, they tend to be very hard to find and fix. Generally when I write code myself I know where the weak points are, and I’ll know where to look as soon as you describe a problem. There’s no chance that will happen with a bug in a library. Besides, to be perfectly honest- I’m pretty damn good at this. Odds are I’m better than the guy who wrote the library. I’m less likely to have a bug than he is.

And one subrant: if your idea of looking for a library is ever to do a search on guthub- stop. Never do that again. So lets say you find one- you have a library of unknown license, unknown skill of author, unknown bugs, unknown code quality that may or may not be supported in the future. You’ve just lost 75% of the benefits of a library. If its a good library, searching in google for what you want will get you plenty of answers all linking to it. If there aren’t, you shouldn’t use it- a quality supported library will have a website somewhere. If you’re doing hobbyist work, you’ll learn more by replicating it than by downloading a library. And if you’re doing professional work, every one of those issues above are a disqualifier. Github is a place to store your source, its not a place to look for code.

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