Growing Up Together

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love JavaScript

November 15, 2014Filed under tech#software developmentMarkdown source

A few years ago, you might have caught me in a grumpy moment grousing about JavaScript. I distinctly did not like writing it. Every time I sat down to deal with it, I found myself in a tangled mess of plain JavaScript, jQuery, and DOM manipulations that inevitably left me tearing my hair out.1 I found it difficult to write in the first place, and even harder to maintain in the long run. I could not come up with good ways to organize it, especially because so much of what I was doing was so thoroughly ad hoc in nature. Cobble this together over here; scrounge together those things over there; hope nothing collides in the middle.

In the last four months, I have written several thousand lines of JavaScript, and I have loved it.

For my latest major project, relaunching, I wrote the front end in AngularJS and the back end as an Express app (the most popular NodeJS web framework). I’ve written gobs of tests in Jasmine (using jasmine-node for server-side tests) and drawn on tons of other open-source packages.

And I have loved it.

A small example: a moment ago, looking up the link for Jasmine, I noted that the latest version released today. My response was, “Ooh—cool!”2

What changed? Well, mostly I changed, but also JavaScript changed a bit. We both grew up over the last four years. On the JavaScript side of things, a lot of good design patterns and tools have come into play in that span. I’m sure there were plenty of good, disciplined web developers writing clear, careful, well-organized client-side JavaScript four years go. But in the interval, that kind of JavaScript got a lot more prominent, in part because it has had help from the rapid rise of server-side JavaScript in the form of Node.js and its flourishing ecosystem of components and tools. Build tools like Browserify and development tools like LiveReload and Codekit have combined with best practices learned from those long years of jQuery/DOM-manipulation hell so that these days, good JavaScript is a lot like good programming in any other language: highly modular, carefully designed, and well-organized.

In the same period of time, I have matured enormously as a developer (just enough to see how far I still have to go, of course). At the point where I most hated JavaScript, I also really struggled to see the utility of callbacks. Frankly, it took me the better part of a month just to get my head around it—most of the tutorials out there just assumed you understood them already, and, well: I didn’t. Functions as first-class members of a language was new to me at that point. Fast-forward through several years of full-time Python development, lots of time spent reading about software development and some harder computer science concepts, and my perspective on JavaScript has shifted more than a little. Closures are beautiful, wonderful things now. Functions as arguments to other functions are delightful and extremely expressive. Prototypal inheritance—trip me up though it sometimes still does—is a fascinating variation on the idea of inheritance and one that I think I like rather better than classical inheritance.3

There are still things I don’t love about JavaScript. Its syntax owes far too much to the C family of languages to make me happy; I quite like the way that CoffeeScript borrows from Python (white-space-delimited blocks, use of equality words like is and boolean rules like and rather than === and && respectively, etc.). And I am looking forward to a number of features coming in the next version of JavaScript—especially generators and the const and let keywords, which will allow for much saner patterns.

But all of that is simply to say that I am now starting to know JavaScript enough to know that its real issues aren’t the surface-level differences from the other languages with which I’m familiar. They’re not even the warts I noted here. They’re things like the mix of classical and prototypal inheritance in the way the language keywords and object instantiation work. But I don’t mind those. Every language has tradeoffs. Python’s support for lambdas is pretty minimal, despite the utility of anonymous functions, for example. But I like the tradeoffs JavaScript makes.4

In other words, I discovered the same thing so many other people have over the last few years: JavaScript isn’t just a good choice for utilitarian reasons. Beneath that messy exterior is a gem of a language. I’m having a lot of fun with it.

  1. Thus the early balding starting by my temples.

  2. My wife’s bemused response: “Is that another language?” Take that as you will.

  3. The couple weeks I got to spend playing with Io certainly helped! Io’s prototypal inheritance is semantically “purer” than JavaScript’s, which is quite an improvement in my view. JavaScript’s new keyword and the pseudo-classical object pattern it brings along can go rot in a bog.

  4. Truth be told, I like them even better from the perspective of CoffeeScript, which hides a lot of the rough edges of JavaScript and, as noted above, brings in quite a few things I like from Python. For my part, I intend to write as much CoffeeScript as possible going forward.