The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Don't Be Typecast By PHP

May 25, 2015

When I tell people I meet that I am a PHP developer, it’s not too unusual for them to scoff or even laugh. In spite of PHP’s enormous popularity, its unflinching support by the unstoppable Facebook engineering machine, and its continuous and impressive improvement as a language year after year, many people in the software industry are openly derisive toward PHP.

Don’t let PHP’s own reputation sully yours; don’t let PHP itself typecast you.

In television, film, and theatre, typecasting is the process by which a particular actor becomes strongly identified with a specific character; one or more particular roles; or, characters having the same traits or coming from the same social or ethnic groups.

Wikipedia, “Typecasting (Acting)”

You are more than the language you use, or even prefer. Moreover, the language you use usually has very little to do with your success as an engineer, or even the success of any business using it. Let me give you some advice.

First, PHP is not a bad language. It’s a quirky language to be sure, but all languages have quirks. The last few minor versions of PHP have dramatically increased its capabilities, elegance, and performance, and the next major version is positioned to make further leaps in all of those categories.

I have had a twisted love affair with PHP for over 15 years; it wasn’t the first language I learned (that was BASIC, followed by Perl), nor is it the language I like the most (which is probably Python at the moment), but it’s still the first thing I reach for when I want to put something dynamic on the web.

The reason that the statement “I am a PHP developer” is broadly misunderstood is because it is meaningless.

PHP is a victim of its own popularity. Kids fresh out of school writing WordPress plug-ins or tweaking Drupal configurations are calling themselves “PHP developers,” and there are thousands of them. The reality is that the majority of people who are reading and writing PHP on a daily basis, for money, wouldn’t make it through the first ten minutes of a Facebook engineering interview. Hell, I probably wouldn’t, either.

If you are one of those people, I applaud you, especially if you love your work. Being paid to do something you love should be everyone’s goal in life. My advice to you is: learn another language, too. Don’t let PHP be the only window you have into the amazing world of computer science.

However, if you are doing really impressive or complicated things with PHP, like scaling an e-commerce platform to over 2,500 impressions per second and over a billion dollars a year, I have different advice:

  1. Don’t be ashamed of using PHP, but
  2. Don’t let PHP define your skills.

I was in college in the early 2000s, and even though the “millennium bug” had already done whatever damage it was going to do, one of my computer science professors told me that he received constant phone calls asking whether he had students learning COBOL. If you were any good at COBOL between 1998 (when the “Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act” was passed) and 2001 or so, you could literally write your own paycheck.

For those folks, being a COBOL programmer defined their career, and probably secured their retirement as well.

Now, with technology driving virtually every industry, and with software at the core of every business, there are no absolutes. The programming languages we learn help us to refine our pattern recognition and to advance our own awareness of the state of the art, but no single modern language is more or less equipped to make a successful product, in spite of all the anecdotal arguments to the contrary.

So, the next time you’re editing your resume, don’t hesitate to mention that you’re good at PHP, but make an effort to emphasize that you reach for the hammer with the handle that feels good in your hands; every hammer can drive a nail, but the carpenter is best with the tools he’s most comfortable with. Don’t let people think of you as just “a PHP programmer.”

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