Creating Better Wheels

Back in february 2013, I was at a clumsy hotel in the business heart of Paris, La Defense, for a week while visiting Qualys’ French headquarters. The golden rule of supply and demand over there drives the prices crazy and I felt robbed as I entered the tiny, smelly and loud room that my company was paying 250$ / night for. A beautiful view on the hotel 20 feet away next door, freshly stained carpet, and exquisite torn tapestries. The final blow came when powering up my laptop and realizing that the wifi signal was like a distant whisper, too weak to be used though it had been paid for… After being disconnected numerous times within the first minutes of usage, I gave up.

I had been working on a side project for the past couple of months and had run accross the simple need to have a multiple selection combo box in tune with Bootstrap. I had spent a couple of hours trying to find or play with the closest solutions to my needs (chosen, select2, textextjs, etc) but I was not satisfied with the lack of configuration options. At the time they would all come short of the features I needed: some didn’t allow you to create free entries/tags, all had static layouts, the quality of the docs matched the one of my hotel room (they have all improved on this since), and it was a pain to achieve a pixel-perfect visual with Bootstrap. I had always been told not to reinvent the wheel but as I attempted to work with the existing tools I realized it might take me less time to actually rewrite a plugin from scratch.

A clumsy place with no internet and a poor TV programming for 4 nights was just the perfect moment to create my combobox. I designed it from scratch, with the inspiration of what had been done for the other plugins. It took me about 8 hours to get something that I was satisfied about, and because I had some time left, I took another 4 hours to build the documentation and prepare it to become open source.

While I had made several contributions in the past to other open source projects I was using, this was my first attempt at releasing an open-source project as a creator. I pushed it during the week-end and created a thread on /r/programming to expose it and tract a bit of attention. I was hoping for some good feedback. All i got the first 24 hours was a single comment saying:

I have to say, I felt pretty bad and quickly concluded that my project was useless. I received a bit more neutral feedback afterwards with people who pointed out a few bugs and I spent some time fixing them for the next couple of days. I then exposed the plugin at two other places but always received the same answer: “why are you reinventing the wheel? It’s already been done before a thousand times.”

If you have ever created anything, you have probably been in that case as well. I think it’s pretty safe to say that in the software business, all the needs have been covered one way or another. Whatever you do out there, you will be reinventing the wheel. This is so disturbing it can even prevent you from starting anything. When John Carmack started game development, he felt like he was late to the party and that everything had already been done a couple of years before him. So why even bother?

Well, surprisingly, a year later, my tiny and simple open-source jQuery plugin MagicSuggest has almost reached 900 stars on github. It even was at the top of github’s trending list for a few consecutive days. Small achievement, yet big realization: I started as a plagiarist. I became an innovator.

Take a look at all the software/websites you are currently using and you will realize that almost if not all of them have replaced an existing product / website that was irreplacable at the time. Back in 97 everyone was using AltaVista to search the web. You would have been foolish to create another search engine back then. In 2005, all development teams were using SVN. And there were tens of other VCS available should the standard not fit. Why on earth would you want to recreate another one? Back in 2007 everyone was using emacs / vim / textmate / notepad++ to code. There were thousands of editors out there and you would have been foolish to create another one. The list goes on and on, with similar patterns. similar initial end-users criticisms, similar end-product success.

There’s a quote wrongly attributed to Picasso that is often quoted today: “Good artists copy, great artists steal” that Steve Jobs would often refer to. I prefer the W. H. Davenport Adams version:

“Great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”

The great truth about software is that there is no perfect round-shaped wheel out there. We should be very careful when criticizing those who imitate: the ones who attempt to recreate something are the only ones who can seize the opportunity to make it better. And if you want to contribute to the future, start looking for people who have the guts and skills to question the standards of today.

In our little world of code, innovation is not achieved through creation. It is done through improvement.

One thought on “Creating Better Wheels

  1. It’s the similar thing happening in the society history, if the system can’t be improved by gradually reforming, the only thing you need to do is to break it and create a new one.

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