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Why Javascript Development is Crazy

Published: 3/24/2016

Web development is fun! Javascript is ... daunting.

Everything else in web development clicks for you, but when you dig into Javascript it's like you're missing some big, foundational piece of knowledge that everyone else has that would help you make sense of it all.

The truth is, yes, you're missing a few pieces to the puzzle.

But also, the current state of the art in frontend development is actually crazy.

It's not just you.

Sit down, pull up a chair. It's time to write a Javascript application.

First step is to get your local development environment up and running. So Gulp, no wait Grunt, no ... NPM scripts!

Webpack or Browserify? (Sheepishly) Require.js? Make the leap to ES6? Or is adding Babel to your preprocessing too much?

BDD or regular unit testing? What assert framework should you use? It sure would be nice to run tests from the command line, so maybe PhantomJS?

Angular or React? Ember? Backbone?

You read some React docs, "Redux is a predictable state container for JavaScript apps." Sweet! You'll definitely need one of those.

Why is it so crazy to build a Javascript application?!?

Let me help you understand why this all seems insane. We'll start with an example and then move on to pretty pictures.

This is React's "Hello, world!" application.

    // main.js
    var React = require('react');
    var ReactDOM = require('react-dom');

      <h1>Hello, world!</h1>,

Not quite done.

$ npm install --save react react-dom babelify babel-preset-react
$ browserify -t [ babelify --presets [ react ] ] main.js -o bundle.js

There are actually a few missing steps in here, like installing browserify or what to actually do after you're done here to make it run on a web page, because it's not like this actually produces a web page that does anything. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

After you're done with that you end up with a file called bundle.js that contains your new React Hello World application coming in at 19,374 lines of code. And you only had to install browserify, babelify and react-dom, weighing in at some unknown tens of thousands of lines of code.

So basically this ...

Ok, now let's do a hello world app with plain Javascript.

<html lang="en">
    <meta charset="utf-8" />
    <meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width" />
    <title>Hello World</title>

    <div id="container"></div>
     document.body.onload = function(){
       var container = document.getElementById("container");
       container.innerHTML = '<h1>"Hello, world!"</h1>';

That's the whole thing. 18 lines of code. You can copy/paste that into a file called index.html, double click and load it in your browser. Done.

If right at this moment you are thinking to yourself, "But wait, React does so much more than this dinky little thing you just wrote and you can't write a Javascript app that way!" you are (mostly) correct, and you are also one tiny step away from understanding why everything is crazy.

Now for that picture I promised.

The vast majority of Javascript web applications you will work on will fall somewhere in the middle of that bell curve. And in the middle, if you start with a full React stack you have massively over-engineered your application from the start.

And that is why everything is crazy. Most of these tools you think you have to have are solving problems you don't have NOR WILL YOU EVER HAVE.

Here's that picture again:

The state of Javascript development is overwhelming and confusing because everyone is overengineering their apps by default without even realizing it.

How should you start a Javascript application? Should you ever use something like React or Angular? Should you use a package manager? What do you do if you don't? Are tests even necessary? Should you even generate the markup with Javascript? These are all questions you should be asking before starting with your gigantic tech stack by default.

When you start a Javascript application, the key is to pick a spot on that bell curve just in front of where you think the app could possibly end up in terms of complexity.

I'm not going to lie, getting this right takes experience. But there is a pretty large sweet spot where you can start most Javascript applications: Jquery plus client-side templates and a dead simple build tool for concatenating and minifying production files (assuming your backend framework doesn't do this already).

If you learn how to structure a Javascript app correctly, you will start to understand how, when and why to use a framework or npm/require/webpack or es6 or when to write tests or when you should bother to make your tests run locally vs. in the browser, and all of these other questions and problems that will come up.