Reinventing the Wheel Considered Useful

We, programmers, are prone to reinvent the wheel—for example, by creating frameworks and libraries instead of using existing ones (very common), or even write our own build tools from scratch (less common).

We do that despite paying lip service to the fact that reinventing the wheel is generally considered a bad thing. In fact, conventional wisdom says that, from a business point of view, reinventing the wheel can be very expensive—developers spend time both to create and to maintain artefacts that could be bought instead—and, from a technical point of view, using a third party product often means fewer bugs to take care of and less time spent doing maintenance.

I used to think that as well. Not anymore. Recently—after giving some references to some widely available good quality ones—I’ve even found myself suggesting a client to keep their in-house C++ unit testing framework if they wanted to. I did that for two reasons: first, it wasn’t a drag on the project; second, I was pretty sure the team had some form of emotional attachment to it and I wanted to keep them. Forcing them to use something else would have probably upset them and made them less productive as a result.

In fact, I’m convinced that allowing a small amount of wheel reinvention in a project has some advantages: it is a cure against boredom, a booster for happiness and motivation, and a way to learn new things. The increased happiness, motivation and the new learnings will improve productivity which, in turn, will help in recovering the associated costs.

During my career, every single team I worked with had reinvented the wheel at least once and, every time, without exception, the programmers who did that were quite proud of their creation and they spent quite a bit of time to improve it. That also gave them something to look forward to, both when the projects were experiencing difficult times, and also when the times where boring and uninteresting—often, when things go very smoothly for a long time, and the technical challenges are few and far between, boredom kicks in and the developers may struggle to stay interested and motivated.

Good programmers are curious by nature and always want to understand how things work, therefore reinventing the wheel can be a great learning experience. For example, writing your own unit testing framework (as many of us did) is a very good way to understand better how that kind of frameworks work, and to understand better the reasons for some of the choices made by the creators of famous ones ones like JUnit, CppUnit, etc. The same can be said of any other frameworks.

A final word of caution. If the amount of wheel reinvention is too much, the project may sink—costs as well as delivery times will go up, and the people in the team may find themselves spending too much time doing infrastructure work and not enough in adding value for the other stakeholders—so you will have to find the right amount for your projects.

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