Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Internationalization in Spirit: Part 3 - Developers

This is the third post in a series about the idea behind making software truly global; and why we are not quite there yet. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 to get some context.

It goes without saying that the core of the software world is the development community. The success of any software platform (that could mean programming language/ API/ development stack/ tool/ … ) depends on how well developers take to it. Every platform out there has gone all out trying to woo not only users, but also developers. There’s documentation, end-to-end samples, fancy tooling, developer fora, mailing-lists, HowTo screencasts, support groups and what not. These days we even have video conferencing wherein the core developers of the platforms interact directly with the community.

The question, then is, is this sufficient to make the platform easier to consume for developers all over the world? From my experience, I would say that there is still lot of scope in this area.

To begin with, there seems to be an unwritten assumption that command over the English language is necessary in order to be a good programmer. This is reflected in

  • the complicated language in use in developer documentation
  • the “heavy” words used to name program elements (classes, functions, variables .. )
  • names of frameworks/API’s or the concepts (like design patterns) on which they are based. These are often cool or catchy, but again, they make sense to only a subset of the developers that use them.

I argue that this assumption is faulty. It is worth remembering that software development (particularly the services industry) is now big in BRICS countries and also picking up in countries like Argentina, Vietnam, Philippines. Most programmers might have basic English knowledge, but I seriously doubt their having a command over the language.

Developer Documentation:

I believe that currently, there is this thing about making documentation grammatically (and I don't know .. legally, politically, ...?) correct. This comes at the cost of clarity. While a developer who is sufficiently well-versed in English might easily understand the essence of the documentation, it is often confusing for developers who are not so well-versed in English.

Consider the following method doc:

String bestMatch(String text)

Scans the database of known keywords until a match on the supplied text occurs, unless said database is empty, in which case falls back to performing keyword search on description and content fields; in either case returning a best match if found, null otherwise.

Yes that was correct. But how easy was it to comprehend? Now, consider the same method doc re-written as follows:

String bestMatch(String text)

  1. Scans database of known keywords , attempting to match the supplied text with the keyword.

  2. If the database is empty, attempts a match on content and description fields.

In both cases, this method returns the best match String if found, null otherwise.

My point is, developer documentation should strive to be simple in language. It is always possible to re-word complex sentences by breaking them up into bullet points and the like.

Documentation should avoid using subtle grammar or obscure language constructs where possible. Needless "smart" wordplay is a strict no-no. Documentation is not a place to show off one's language skills, there are other forums well-suited for that!


Back in college, we mostly used Animal, Cat and Dog to describe inheritance; and Student or Account as examples to illustrate data storage concepts. Somewhere down the line, example code went through a transition. Now, sample code looks like this:

Band ledzep = new Band();
ledzep.type = BandType.ROCK;


Or, as one of my favorite books used to describe singleton pattern using enums in Java: Elvis.INSTANCE.leaveTheBuilding();

Now that was cool ... for someone who has heard of Elvis. But, this may sound impossible, but there are developers who have never heard of Elvis. They will miss the point, for sure.

What I'm trying to say here is: Sample code should try to put across the point without being gimmicky. The gimmicks might be picked up by some, but will definitely be lost on some others.

Program Elements:

So, you are designing an API. You try to follow all the best practices. You start thinking of a name for that particular class. You want the class name to be as descriptive as possible. Then you end up with this:

public abstract class ImmutableMediationDelegatingStrategyPrefabricator

or a method like this:

public void incrementalAddThenComputeAverageAndPersist()

A potential developer takes one look at your API, and is likely to never return to your site again.

Okay, those were extreme examples. But not all that distant from the truth. The gist here is that the name of your API should help the developer understand its concise objective. If the developer has to reach for the dictionary to understand what the hell the class name means, you've got it wrong.


Ditto with the name of the library itself, where we see the other extreme. Its good to be creative and think of cool names; but there are plenty of examples of devs who overdid it, and ended up with names that make sense only to a small percentage of the target audience. This holds even if the catchy name is somehow related to the functionality the library provides (which is in itself a rarity).

Would you make an effort to understand my library if I named it kumbh-ka-mela? Or Kodachadri?

The Bottom Line:

It is simple really. As a developer, every aspect of your product is carefully designed keeping the end user in mind. The same consideration should be extended to other developers who will be using your development tool. Right from program concepts to developer documentation, one must strive to make the artifacts as inclusive as possible.

After all, more the developers use my development tool, the more I benefit. Right?