An open letter to Xcode

The post below has been filed verbatim as an Apple Developer Tools bug report with ID 13051064.

Dear Xcode,

imagine that you had a combine harvester. Only, this combine harvester, instead of having a hopper into which the winnowed wheat is poured, has a big quern stone. It grinds the wheat into a flour, which is poured into a big mixer with some water and a bit of yeast. The mixture from here then finds its way into a big oven.

While all of this is going on, the other side of the combine harvester is actually a platform hosting some cows and a milking machine. The gathered milk is churned by the same device that turns the quern for grinding the flour.

As you have no doubt concluded yourself, Xcode, such a machine would be a great help in producing bread and butter. But let me tell you to what this parable alludes: Apple’s bread and butter is its systems of electronic devices, first and third party software. You, Xcode, are the souped-up combine harvester; the thing that makes it possible to rapidly turn the ingredients of Apple’s ecosystem into the products that everyone desires. You free both Apple’s people and the people who make things with Apple’s things from the drudgery of threshing and winnowing, and let them concentrate on what they want to make and how people would want to interact with those things. Do some people want artisanal loaves while others want simple pre-sliced packages? Xcode, you help people help both of these people.

Here’s what I think. I think you know this, Xcode. I think you, and the product people, and the developers who make you, all know that you are a key piece of machinery in producing Apple’s bread and butter. I worry though that other people at Apple, particularly some of the managers, do not see this. I think that they see you as a tool for internal use and a small number of external customers; a group that is not the primary focus for Apple’s products. These same people would see the combine harvester not as the greatest labour-saving device of the twentieth century, but as a niche instrument only of interest to combine harvester operators.

I respect you, Xcode. You may not know that, because I joke about you a lot on Twitter. What you have to understand is that for an English man to make a joke about one of his friends, it means that he really respects and has affection for that friend. It’s that respect I have for you, and for the people that make you, that means I think I can tell you what follows and you’ll take it in the intended spirit: as advice, not as an insult.

Xcode, I need you to do a couple of things. One of them you’ll like, one of them you won’t. I’ll start with the one you’ll like: I’m not a fan of the shit sandwich mode of delivering criticism. So here goes. Xcode, I need you and the people who make you to go around the campus at Apple and tell everyone you meet about the combine harvester story. Particularly senior management. Let everyone see that you are not some toy app used by a few edge-case and highly demanding users, but are in fact a critical component in the machinery that makes iPhones what they are, that makes iPads what they are, that makes Macs what they are. Remind the people who’re focused on iBooks Author as a key part of Apple’s education strategy that you help to make iBooks Author. Remind the people who want to build even better iOS releases that you are helping to build those releases. That when someone says “there’s an app for that”, it’s because of you. Help everyone to realise that the better you are, Xcode, the better nearly everything else that Apple does will become.

You’ll find it easier to convince some people than others, I’m sure. I expect that Craig Federighi has strong memories of using you when you were still Project Builder. I expect that Tim Cook may never have launched or even installed you. I don’t promise that telling the combine harvester story will be easy, but I do promise that it will boost your esteem, and that of the people who work on you.

So that was the one I think you’ll like, Xcode. Here is the other one; the one I doubt you’ll like so much. I mentioned Project Builder in the last paragraph: Xcode, I’m sorry to have to tell you that you are no longer Project Builder. How do I mean? I’m certainly not talking about your outward appearance: Project Builder was a quirky adolescent who couldn’t do anywhere near as much as you can. What I’m saying is that you’re no longer the cool startup whose goal is to change the world of developer tools. We’ve tried a whole bunch of different machinery and we’ve settled on the souped-up combine harvester. What we need you to be is a better souped-up combine harvester.

That’s not to say that innovation in developer tools should die completely. There will be new Project Builders. Someone will invent a new way of building software that’s completely out of left field, and plenty of people will find that new way better than the current way. That’ll be really cool. Maybe Apple will buy that company, or license their technology, so that you can have a go with it. That would also be cool.

What I’m saying, Xcode, is that you’re mature and grown up and people respect you for that. Please stop having these mid-life crises like you did at version 4 where you suddenly change how everything is done. Your work now is in incremental enhancement, not in world-changing revolution. People both at Apple and outside have come to expect you to be dependable, reliable and comfortable. You may think that’s boring. It’s not! Remember all of those things that exist because of you, all of those people who are delighted by what you have helped create. Just bear in mind also that when it comes time for Xcode 5, people will want a better Xcode, not a replacement for Xcode.

Think about the apps that are made at Apple now. What could make it a bit faster to make every view? Or make regressions a bit easier to detect and fix? What errors do developers at Apple see, with what frequency? How could you reduce those errors or make them quicker to diagnose? There’s an old story that Steve Jobs wanted the boot time of the Macintosh to be as fast as possible, and he thought about it in terms of the number of lifetimes that would be wasted staring at the boot screen. You may now be thinking about the number of lifetimes spent writing code, but I want you to think bigger than that: think about the exponentially larger number of lifetimes being spent waiting for those apps to ship. That extra month where 100 million people waited for the new iTunes; could a better Xcode have cut that time down?

Listen, Xcode, this is going to sound weird. I mean, you barely know me, but I’m talking like we’re best friends and I’m holding some kind of intervention. But here’s how I want you to see it, and it’s based on the combine harvester story. I don’t know whether you have a bonus or incentive scheme at Apple, but if you do then ask them to make this change. Xcode, your bonus should not be based on shipping Xcode. That would be like paying a combine harvester for harvesting; it completely misses the point. The point of harvesting is to make things like bread. Your bonus should be based on shipping every other software product Apple makes. Maybe even the third-party apps, if you can work out a fair way to measure that.

With more sincerity than this blog usually evinces,

Graham.

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