james mckay dot net
because there are few things that are less logical than business logic

How to become a better .NET developer

If I can give one single piece of advice to ASP.NET developers anywhere, it will be this:

Learn another web development environment.

I really can not emphasise this strongly enough. From what I’ve observed, developers who only work with ASP.NET seem to have quite a bit of difficulty thinking outside of the Microsoft box. I am frequently confronted with indiscriminate and even inappropriate use of aspects of the .NET framework that don’t scale, such as DataSets, view state, or drag-and-drop programming. There’s nothing wrong with all these per se, but one of the most important things you need to know about how to use them is when not to use them. When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

The ASP.NET Web Forms model in particular was originally designed to make web development look like Windows development, and ease the transition for VB6 developers from programming for rich Windows clients to the web. The result of this is that it has made the easy aspects of web development almost brain dead, while introducing a horrendously leaky abstraction layer that makes the hard things even harder, with masses of gotchas and pitfalls to trip you up if you venture outside it.

Languages such as PHP, Ruby on Rails or Python don’t have the same leaky abstractions, so developers tend to not only program “closer to the metal” but to think closer to the metal as well. This is why most of the cool sites, with stunning Ajax effects, tend to be written in these languages and target these platforms, while ASP.NET is largely languishing in the enterprisey world of Dilbert-esque cubicle farms.

I recommend you choose your alternative carefully, however. Rails and Python are the best choices. They will teach you patterns, practices, conventions, O/R mapping, MVC, and all round agile and pragmatic programming, and they tend to be taken up by smart and experienced developers who know what they’re doing. I have mixed feelings about Java: while you can learn a lot from it, like .NET it is very enterprisey, and at a time when everyone is getting excited about dynamic languages, Java is heading in completely the opposite direction. And I certainly don’t recommend PHP as a learning exercise: it is a beginners’ language — and a mindbogglingly badly designed one at that — and while PHP guys are generally pretty enthusiastic and some of them are quite smart, and there are some decent PHP frameworks such as CakePHP and Symfony, the overwhelming majority of the PHP community simply don’t have what it takes to be programmers. Having said that, you need to know it, simply because it’s so pervasive.

You should also learn Linux if you can. It will teach you about modular design and the value of scripting everything that can be scripted. This is right at the heart of why Unix is Unix: a large part of its philosophy involves chaining text-based programs where the output of one can be passed as the input to another, to produce some fairly powerful command-based functionality, and scripting repetitive tasks so that their outcomes can be reliably reproduced. These are philosophies that seem largely lost in the world of Windows, which relies much more heavily on the visual, drag, drop and click approach of dialog boxes and wizards, even though they are every bit as essential if you want to have robust procedures and practices in place.

And whichever platform you take on board, you simply must familiarise yourself thoroughly with CSS, DHTML, JavaScript and Ajax, and at least one JavaScript framework such as Prototype or jQuery.

Personally, I still think that ASP.NET is technically the best platform on which to develop scalable, high performance, reliable web applications. However, in order to make the most of it, you need to have a good feel for what approaches you can import and learn from other platforms. Otherwise you will be stuck with the limitations and leaky abstractions of Web Forms.