What should a .NET renaissance look like?

Aaron Stannard has an interesting blog post in which he talks about all the different ways in which the .NET scene has improved in the past few years. There’s certainly a lot going on in the Microsoft ecosystem to get .NET developers excited, and he mentions six areas in particular where this is evident:

  1. The decoupling of .NET from Windows
  2. The new-found focus on CLR performance
  3. Moving .NET’s tooling to a cross-platform model
  4. The .NET user base is embracing the OSS ecosystem as a whole
  5. The direction on .NET development is pushing users further down into the details of the stack
  6. Microsoft’s platform work being done out in the open.

Now these all look pretty exciting, but the litmus test of whether we are seeing a .NET renaissance is whether or not it can attract people who have “left .NET” back into the fold.

I have had little involvement in .NET myself over the past year, since I moved onto a team doing DevOps work on AWS for mostly LAMP-based projects a year or so ago. While I wouldn’t describe myself as having “left .NET” never to return, there is still one very important thing that needs to happen before I would consider it an attractive prospect to pick up that particular baton again.

The .NET community as a whole needs to provide evidence that it is becoming more open to options from beyond the Microsoft ecosystem.

When you move beyond the .NET ecosystem, one of the first things you find is that there is much more cross-flow between the different technology stacks. Developers are much more likely to be familiar with (or at least, willing to try out) other languages outside their usual ambit. Ruby developers won’t think twice about getting their hands dirty with Python, or Go, or Scala, or even C#, if the need arises. Any solution that gets a good enough reputation and meets your business need will be up for consideration — ElasticSearch, DataDog, Terraform, Consul, you name it. Different languages are mixed and matched — and all the more so with the increasing popularity of microservice-based architectures.

By contrast, for many years, most .NET developers have shown very little interest in anything beyond the Microsoft ecosystem. In fact, some of them have even regarded other technology stacks with suspicion if not outright hostility. There’s a widespread attitude in many .NET teams in many companies that unless something is included out of the box in Visual Studio, documented first and foremost on MSDN, promoted by Microsoft MVPs, and certified by Microsoft examinations, you’ve no business whatsoever paying the slightest bit of attention to it. If you’ve ever been told to do something a certain inefficient and cumbersome way for no reason other than That Is How Microsoft Wants You To Do It, or been given a funny look for suggesting you use Python for something, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the Silverlight community. The reason why Silverlight died and HTML5 took over in its place was that browsers and platforms which were outside of Microsoft’s control — starting with the iPhone and the iPad — started blocking it. Yet Silverlight developers almost unanimously put the blame for Silverlight’s demise at Microsoft’s feet. The fact that there were decisions being made by other browser manufacturers that had to be considered didn’t even seem to enter their minds.

When your team has a healthy level of interaction with other parts of the software development community, you start to see many, many benefits. You learn from other people’s mistakes as well as your own. Your attention is drawn to solutions to problems that you didn’t realise were problems. You get an element of peer review for your best practices. You get a better idea of which tools and technologies are likely to stick around and which aren’t. On the other hand, with a paternalistic, spoon-fed attitude, you end up turning up late to the party and very often completely misunderstanding the processes and tools that are being suggested to you. It’s amazing to visit the ASP.NET architecture forum and see how many .NET developers still cling on to horrendous outdated “best practices” such as n-tier, business layers that don’t contain any business logic, or misguided and ultimately futile attempts to make Entity Framework swappable for unknown mystery alternatives.

There are of course many .NET teams that get these things right, and that do successfully engage with teams from elsewhere. But I’d like to see a whole culture shift right across the entire .NET ecosystem. I’d like to see it become commonplace and widespread for .NET teams to go beyond embracing just those bits and pieces from elsewhere that get Microsoft’s imprimatur, such as Git, or bash on Ubuntu on Windows, or Angular.js. I’d like to see a greater willingness to try tools such as make or grunt instead of MSBuild; Terraform instead of Azure Resource Manager; ElasticSearch/Logstash/Kibana instead of SCOM; and so forth. I’d like to see a much greater willingness to augment C# codebases with utilities and helpers written in Python, Ruby or Go where it makes sense to do so.

I’d like to see them fully embrace twelve factor apps, configuration settings in environment variables rather than the abomination that is web.config, container-based architecture, and immutable servers treated as cattle rather than pets. I’d like to see innovations in software development tooling and techniques getting adopted by the .NET community much faster than they have done up to now. You shouldn’t have to wait for Microsoft to take notice and give their imprimatur before you start using tools such as Git, Docker or Terraform, when everyone else has got there already.

Once we get to that point, we can truly say that we are seeing a .NET renaissance.

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