Forget the language, the important is the tooling

There’s not one week passing without stumbling upon a post claiming language X is superior to all others, and offers you things you cannot do in other languages, even make your kitchenware shine brightier and sometimes even return lost love. I wouldn’t mind these claims, because some features really open my Java developer mind to the lacking of what I’m using now, but in general, they are just bashing another language - usually Java.

For those that love to bitch, here’s a quote that might be of interest:

There are only two kinds of programming languages: those people always bitch about and those nobody uses.
— Bjarne Stroustrup

That said, my current situation spawned some thinking. I was trying to migrate the Android application I’m developing in my spare time to Kotlin. I used Android Studio to do that, for which JetBrains provide a migration tool through the Kotlin plugin. The process is quite straightforward, requiring only minor adjustments for some files. This made me realize the language is not the most important, the tooling is. You can have the best language in the world - and it seems each person has his own personal definition of "best", if the tooling lacks, it amounts to just nothing.

Take Scala for example. I don’t pretend to be an expert in Scala, but I know enough to know it’s very powerful. However, if you don’t have a tool to handle advanced language features, such as implicit parameters, you’re in for a lot of trouble. You’d better have an advanced IDE to display where they come from. If to go beyond mere languages, the same can be said about technologies such as Dependency Injection - whether achieved though Spring or CDI or aspects from AOP.

Another fitting example would be XML. It might not be everyone’s opinion, but XML is still very much used in the so-called enterprise world. However, beyond a hundred of lines of code and a few namespaces, XML becomes quite hard to read without help. Come Eclipse or XMLSpy and presto, XML files can be displayed in a very handy tree-like representation.

On the opposite, successful languages (and technologies) come in with tooling. Look around and see for yourself. Still, I don’t pretend I know between the cause and the consequence: are languages successful because of their tooling, or are tools constructed around successful languages? Perhaps it’s both…​

Previously, I didn’t believe Kotlin and its brethren had many chances for success. Given that Jetbrains is behind both Kotlin and IntelliJ IDEA, I believe Kotlin might have a very bright future ahead.

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel

Developer Advocate with 15+ years experience consulting for many different customers, in a wide range of contexts (such as telecoms, banking, insurances, large retail and public sector). Usually working on Java/Java EE and Spring technologies, but with focused interests like Rich Internet Applications, Testing, CI/CD and DevOps. Also double as a trainer and triples as a book author.

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Forget the language, the important is the tooling
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