Stack Wars: The epic struggle for control of the tech stack

4 min read

The choice of tech stack for a project, team or organisation is an ongoing struggle between competing forces. Each of the players has their own logic, beliefs and drivers. Where you stand and what side you are on totally determines the way you see the struggle.

Packt is on the developer team. This is how we see the struggle we’re all part of:

Technology vendors are the Empire

Any organisation that is selling tools, technologies or platform services is either already behaving like the Empire, or will, eventually, become the Empire. Vendors want the stack to include their tech, and if the vendor has a full stack like IBM, MS, or Oracle then they want you to live in their world. To be completely Blue or Red Stack.

The economics driving this are relentless. The biggest cost for large software vendors is acquiring customers. Once you have a customer, it makes sense to keep expanding your product portfolio to sell more to each customer.

The end game is when the Empire captures whole planets from the Alliance and enslaves the occupants in a move called Large Outsourcing Deals.

Businesses and IT departments are the Rebel Alliance

Companies and organisations build systems to try and serve their users and customers. Their underlying intentions are good. They are trying to do the right thing. They do the best they can.

They have to manage within a structured organisation, co-ordinating different groups and teams. They sometimes have some cool new stuff, but often they are struggling with outdated kit, against overwhelming odds. Companies sometimes achieve great things in specific battles with heroic individuals and teams, but they also have to keep the whole show on the road.

The Empire Vendors are constantly trying to bring them into their captive stack-universe, to make life “easier” with the comforting myth of the one-stop-shop. The Alliance gets new weapons and allies in the form of insurgent vendors who start out fighting the Empire, like GitHhub, Jira and AWS. However, these can be dangerous alliances.

The iron law of the costs of customer acquisition will drive even the insurgent vendors to continually expand their product offer and then – BAM! – another empire wanting to lock you in. They call this the ‘Land and Expand’ strategy and every vendor has it, overtly or secretly. Even the currently much-beloved Slack will eventually try and turn itself into the Facebook of the office, and will gobble up the app ecosystem just like Facebook.  They all cross over to the dark side eventually.

Developers are the Jedi

Devs have a deep understanding of how technologies really work in action because they have to actually build things. This knowledge can appear mystical to outsiders. It is hard to express and articulate the intuitive skills gained from actual development experience. The very best devs are 10, 100, 1000 times more productive than the implementation teams from the vendors.

Devs know what vendor tools are really like under the hood, when the action starts. They know that even the Death Star has hidden yet fatal vulnerabilities, no matter how great it looks from a distance.

Over the years devs have evolved their own special ways of working that is hard for outsiders to understand. These go by the names of Agile and Open Source. Agile is a semi-mysterious Way, trusting the process to migrate towards success, without being really able to say what that is before we realise we get there. Open Source is the shared network that binds developers together into a powerful network of shared power on platforms like GitHub.

Devs have two forces driving them. The first is to get the very best tech stack for each project, based on their unique technical insight into how it really works. Devs always want to choose best of breed, for this problem, here and now. But devs also have personal weapons of choice, over which they have mastery, and will try and use these wherever possible. Laser swords can do a lot more than you think, but there are other, better weapons in certain circumstances.

Stack Wars are never going to end. There will be more and more episodes of this eternal struggle. The Empire can never be completely defeated, any more than the Jedi can die out. The story needs all three, and ebbs and flows over time in a pattern that repeats itself but in new and different ways.

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