Tuesday, May 7, 2019

On Tooling

I used to think that tools didn’t matter.  In creative acts, it’s often the person that makes the difference.  Compare violins and 80-90% of the difference in performance comes down to the player.  The $10,000,000 violin does sound a little better in anyone’s hands, but Benny can still get an excellent performance out of Brett’s violin.  Before I was interested in music, Ken Rockwell said the same thing about cameras—the camera doesn’t matter, the photographer does.

In college, we used Visual Studio as if it were “Notepad with a compile button,” so I really didn’t think that much of IDEs.

I went on to program in Vim and GVim for 20 years.  I finally started using plugins; first Syntastic, and then ALE.  I knew I was missing a proper debugging experience, but I didn’t want to give up everything else for that.

But then, things happened.  I used VS Code when homebrew broke MacVim for a while, back in October or so, in which I began to really enjoy Intelephense. It was kind of disorienting to be back in vim, and not have those omnipresent hints.

That was the turning point.  That was the key experience that made me think, “I really should try PHPStorm after all.”

Just as much as VS Code is more productive (code completion and docs!) than vim, PHPStorm is another level beyond my VS Code setup.  It has far more static checks, and it has much more effective refactoring tools.  Oh, and its XDebug integration actually works, unlike everything else I ever tried.

There was some code I ported from Perl to PHP in vim, and didn’t have a good way to test.  I knew it was risky, so I tried extra hard to make sure it was right, then pushed it to production anyway.  By the time someone tried to use the feature, months later, it crashed before even being able to flag the job as “started”.  I opened the file in PHPStorm and fixed around a half-dozen bugs based on its warnings alone.  Then it ran fine.

There’s another project where I have been using the code navigation features heavily (open by class, go to test/implementation/definition) as well as the rename and “change signature” refactorings.  It’s a massive rewrite of an API implementation; we outsourced development for political reasons, which blew up in our face as usual.  But I figured I could clean it up when we took delivery.

Let’s just say, it’s a good thing I have PHPStorm for it, and it’s also clear the external team didn’t. I started out by generating a lot of PHPDoc blocks and locking down the types, just to give PHPStorm some traction on finding the next layer of bugs.

And I know editors are religious, and some would say that I could carefully configure VS Code or vim to do more, to be better at PHP or at Symfony or whatever.  The thing is, PHPStorm did it out of the box. (vim is at a special disadvantage here, because it was designed before IDEs, so it doesn’t have a whole lot of shortcuts available for IDE functionality.)

PHPStorm isn’t perfect, of course.  It’s missing a few warnings, the type analysis doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t seem to handle reworking the namespace if a file is moved around a PSR-4 root.  It’s not very good at understanding a collection of independent CLI scripts—definitions leak across files that don’t include each other.  But all in all, I can’t really imagine taking on the API project in vim or VS Code.  Even with the test suite, it would be slower going, or buggier, or both.

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