Skip links

Do It Yourself

Let me alone cause no one wants to be
Hanging around with someone messing up like me
I guess my way isn’t good enough
When I try I just keep on wrecking stuff

Bouncing Souls, “Argyle”

Everyone carries different baggage with them into their chosen field. I don’t mean “baggage” in the strictly negative sense; some baggage can be pretty helpful, like Batman’s utility belt or Felix’s Bag of Tricks.

For me that baggage is punk rock.

I don’t just mean the music. I mean the lifestyle, the feelings it evokes, the outsiderness and otherness. All of it. As an introvert, I wasn’t the most social kid while growing up. Late in my high school career I discovered punk rock. Seeing people who were able to be cool without fitting in to mainstream culture, who weren’t afraid to stand out. There was a lot of conformity in the semi-rural area where I went to high school, and these kids with the faster-louder music blaring from their car stereos seemed to offer a glimpse of something more exciting. I was hooked.

By the time I was at university, my whole social experience (what there was of it; I was still an introvert) was dictated by this music. I went to all of the parties, watched all my friends’ bands, hung out at their radio shows. I eventually started playing bass myself, and listened mostly to relatively obscure early 80’s English bands who often couldn’t play and definitely couldn’t sing.

Eventually I started to grow up. My taste in music changed, and I came to internalize my otherness rather than feel a need to be part of the scene or dress a particular way. I never forgot the feelings punk rock gave me, and keep many of the values to this day.

Chief amongst those values is the “Do It Yourself” aesthetic, often shortened to DIY. The idea behind this is that the barriers between amateurs and professionals in a given field are often artificial, and if you work hard enough, you can create something of value even if you lack the formal training. Sure, it might not be as pretty, but it’s yours, damn it. And people better pay attention.

Recently I’ve been doing lots of work with different PHP frameworks and content management systems. Naturally there were some things I liked about each; for instance, the Yii Framework (a pretty standard MVC) has a cool routing system based on regular expressions, and WordPress (the venerable CMS) has themes, which are pretty useful for when you want to share a common backend across several client sites. There were also some things I disliked. Yii’s database layer for example; it isn’t bad as far as ORMs go (they all have problems) but it certainly gives developers enough rope to hang themselves, and I had to spend a lot of time stripping it out of certain parts of a client app when the queries it was generating were taking 10 times longer than they should have.

There was definitely room for improvement here, so I decided to give it a shot. The result is Sodapop, my first (complete) PHP MVC framework.

It’s still under active development, but it’s pretty useful already. It follows the standard MVC pattern of having controller objects with action methods, model objects that represent rows in the database, layouts and view templates named based on their controller and action. It also has some unique features, such as themes and model classes that can be declared implicitly the first time they are invoked.

There is still a lot I’d like to add to it, particularly around the database layer. Relations, migrations, support for other servers, stuff like that. But you know what? That’s fine. It’s something I made for my own projects and I can add to it as I need to while maintaining an internal consistency. If other people like what it offers, I’d love to have them along for the ride with me, offering suggestions and telling me where it needs improvement. Truthfully though, I’d make it even if nobody else looked at it. It’s just fun to learn how these things work.

One could justifiably ask what the point is in creating something like a new web framework when there are already so many; aren’t there some things where doing it yourself is just an exercise in ego gratification? Sure, there is that. But it’s worth looking at the bigger picture.

Careers in our industry are frighteningly long, especially if you want to stay technical and not move into management. At any given time there are lots of sexy tools; today (at least in the PHP world) we have Laravel, Symfony, Yii, and myriad others. If you looked at it a few years ago, though, you would have seen a slightly different list, with Zend, CakePHP, and others at the top of the heap.

The tools you use will always change, and you’ll have to be learning all the time to survive.

While you do need to have a general competence and familiarity with popular tools, as well as the ability to get up to speed quickly, I would rather know concepts than dedicate my life to learning every intricacy of a specific tool. And there is no better way to learn concepts than doing it yourself.

When it comes to building websites for clients, I tend to use whichever framework they are comfortable with, including the popular ones. For my own projects, I want to have more control, and the ability to build in features that I’ll still be able to leverage in 5 years after the frameworks du jour have splintered and been replaced by some new hotness. And I’ll continue to refine my own tools to incorporate the good parts of the new frameworks that come out.

One of the magical things about being a programmer is that it affords you the ability to create the world that you live in. Programs have many components, and you can use components created by others, or use your own. You choose your own level of engagement. I can’t think of any other field that offers that.

There is an art in having the self-awareness to know if what you are adding is creating value, or is just different for the sake of different. It can be fun to reinvent the wheel, but you won’t necessarily improve on the original.

Doing it yourself under the right parameters can help push your boundaries and grow as a developer. It can teach you how to design good systems and help you understand the tradeoffs that go into building such systems. It can also get you out of the cycle of reapplying the same patterns to solve new problems by giving you new tools to work with.

When I lose, every time I win, cause no one will ever be
Messing up stuff and doing things wrong quite like me
No one will ever be like me
No one will ever be like me