Should you reinvent the wheel? Programming and cakes

The “Not invented here” mindset and it’s counterpart “Don’t reinvent the wheel” mindsets are probably causing thousands of discussions every day. Almost every week you see a question pop up in programming subreddits where people ask whether they should use a framework or a library for something or roll out their own solution.

To me the answer has always been rather obvious and easily explainable with a simple analogy. What if instead of programming you would be cooking a birthday cake. How would you approach it? Your options are pretty much the same:

  • Buy a ready made one – you definitely will get an okay-ish cake that way, or even a very good one if you are willing to spend more on it.
  • Google for a nice recipe – This approach really depends on how good a cook you are, since even the best recipe can be totally botched by bad execution. And you have no way of telling whether the recipe you found is good before you spend time and effort cooking it.
  • Buy a cook book – These recipes usually have much better quality than ones you find online, since the authors have their reputation to maintain and a such a book is in itself a professional product
  • Improvise and cook your own – Should obviously be attempted only when you have some substantial experience, know where to get a backup cake if you fail, or as a learning practice.

If I told you that I’m going to improvise a cake without any prior experience and use expensive ingredients for it, you’d say I was bound to fail and waste a lot of money in the process. Can you see the analogy now? This is what I hear when a person with no substantial experience says they rolled out their own framework, router, ORM etc.

On the other hand ready made recipes only get you so far. Their very nature of catering to the majority of people makes them lean towards being simple and easy. You won’t just google a recipe for this cake (yes it is cake and is completely edible):

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If you are a local website “bakery” with average experience your best bet is to use established recipes which yield good results honing your skills until you can do something more complex. But if you position yourself as a premium wedding cake baker you can’t just bring a regular strawberry cheesecake to a party.

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