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A Bad Question to ask a Developer

Aug 19, 2015

There is this question that I'd like to suggest is never useful to ask another developer. I find myself asking it when I talk to other developers, too—I'd like to stop.

There's this terrible question. I didn't stop to notice how terrible it was until lately, when I was at the receiving end of it at a particularly clenchy moment.

Why didn't you just use [fill in the blank with some specific technology or framework or pattern]?

The genesis of the terrible question

It's so easy to get to this question. A colleague or friend starts unrolling a story at you: "I spent all day ramming my head against this CORS issue" or "I could not for the life of me figure out how write a test for this thing" or "I was trying to do this thing with flexbox of pain."

You've already been there; you've already suffered this specific grief. Or, lucky you, you chanced to learn of a solution to the grief in advance of the first time you got whacked with it. You already know a safe path out of the wilderness in question.

In any case, you, at this time of hearing your cohort's misery, forget momentarily how much your own journey through the same wicked forest hurt. Or you underrate how lucky you were to know how to skirt the wicked forest safely in advance of its clutches. Because this is all behind you, you have an empathy glitch and you say:

Why didn't you just use blah with your Access-Control-Allow-Origin headers blah blah blah?


Why didn't you just use fake test timers in sinon.js?


Why didn't you just use whatever blah polyfill?

Why this question is never useful

I think we mean well. We want to share our battle-worn knowledge. When we say just it also has the connotation of "I assume you already know about this thing we both use in our shared livelihoods...why didn't you just use it?"

First problem: the battle you're critiquing is in the past. Your colleague has already fought it. And come out the other side with some resolution of how she or he subdued the beast in some way. Suggesting an alternate solution is relatively moot.

It also presumes that you have consummate understanding of the whole problem and the surrounding ecosystem. Maybe you don't.

But my frowny issue with this phrase primarily centers around the wretched word just. O! Just. Perpetrator of so much evasion English, stabber of cruel clauses.

Just belittles the original problem, shrinks the monster. It presumes the conflict to be trivial and petty. It casts the person on the listening end as inferior, ignorant or both.

This is a question that's easy to trip into naturally, but should be avoided.