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Why are Developers so Afraid of SQL?

Jessica Thornsby

Dustin Marx has blogged about a phobia unique to the software industry: sqlphobia.

Marx does not suffer from this phobia. His ability to read SQL has proved useful in debugging problems with code that uses JPA implementations. But, he perceives a great, and to him unnecessary, effort to hide SQL from the developer. This takes the form of tools such as Enterprise Java Beans – or, “SQL made worse by embedding it in XML,” as he puts it – Hibernate, the Spring Framework, Java Data Objects, object databases, and XML databases. But, the biggest offender in this perceived SQL cover-up, is object-relational mapping (ORM) tools.

There are some ORM tools that Marx approves of. He defines himself as a fan of Java Persistence API (JPA) but finds that on occasion the impact JPA has on the object design is too heavy-handed. This isn’t his only bone to pick with JPA: “there are situations where even the best ORM implementation introduces more trouble and requires more effort than using SQL directly.”

So, if all these tools are often unnecessary and sometimes even detrimental, how does sqlphobia start? Marx sees it as a fear of the unknown, something which he has had personal experience of. He failed to learn SQL in college, and was subsequently hesitant to use SQL in his first job. Then, he was put on a project where he used SQL on a regular basis, and he quickly grew used to it. He sees this fear in others, and views it as irrational because the mappings supposed to cover-up SQL, are often more difficult to maintain than SQL itself.

He acknowledges that SQL is far from perfect. To his way of thinking, a standard is only as good as its implementations, and the most common SQL implementations poorly implement the standard or ignore it altogether, which means SQL is pretty much lacking a standard. This lack of standardisation only plays into the aforementioned fear of the unknown.

Although SQL requires the learning of new syntax and semantics, Marx actually sees a benefit to this. Once you have learnt SQL, writing a database access piece of code in a new programming language is easier, as the familiar SQL language provides a commonality to lean against. And, if that isn’t enough to get you learning SQL, Marx points out that it is one of the most commonly occurring languages in a programmer’s overall career. When he phrases it like that, it does make sense to take the plunge and get familiar with SQL.

Marx does fail to mention portability problems surrounding SQL, but he does have a valid point in that removing any anxieties surrounding SQL would have a beneficial effect on certain projects, as it allows the developer to “make the correct choice for the situation.” In a sqlphobia-free world, if a project would benefit from using SQL without an ORM, then the developer would use SQL without an ORM. Wasting time shoe-horning a non-SQL solution into a SQL-shaped hole, is only going to damage a project.

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