What Django Can (and Can’t) Do for You

I’m joining a team at work for the next few weeks to hammer out what will be my second significant Django project.

I’m not an expert on Django, but I have enough experience with it now to say that it facilitates the vast majority of web application programming tasks with very little pain. It’s highly opinionated and very complex, and has all the issues that come with that, but if you learn its philosophy, it serves you extremely well. And in cases where it doesn’t—say, with database queries that can’t be written easily with the Django ORM—you can selectively bypass parts of the framework and just do it yourself.

So I’ve been puzzled by complaints I’ve been hearing about how difficult it is to work with Django. There’s an initial learning curve, sure, but I didn’t think it was THAT bad. Yet over and over again, I kept hearing the grumbling, “why do I have to do it this way?”

A recent example came up with the way that Django does model inheritance. There’s a few ways to do it, with important differences in how the database tables are organized. You have to understand this in order to make a good choice, so of course, it takes a little time to research.

Having worked with Java’s Hibernate, I recognized some of the similarities in Django’s approach to addressing the fundamental problem of the impedance mismatch between object classes and database tables. Every ORM must deal with this, and there are nicer and less nice ways to deal with it. The point is, there’s no way to avoid it.

I realized that the complaints weren’t actually about Django per se, despite appearances. They were complaints about not understanding the underlying technologies. People were expecting Django to replace the need for knowledge about databases, HTTP, HTML, MVC architecture, etc. It doesn’t. That’s a poor way to approach what Django can do for you.

The metaphor of tools is useful here. If you gave me a set of sophisticated, high-quality tools to build a house, but I didn’t know the first thing about construction, I might complain that the tools suck because I can’t easily accomplish what I want, because I’m forced to use them in (what seems to me to be) clumsy ways. But that would be terribly misguided.

So the complaints weren’t about the merits of Django compared to how other frameworks do things. What they’re really saying is, “This is different from how I would do it, if I were writing a web framework from scratch.” Which is funny, because I’m not convinced they could invent a better wheel, given their limited knowledge and experience. (This is not a dig: I’ve worked on quite a few projects, many with custom frameworks, and doubt I could conceive of something easier to use and still as powerful as Django. Designing frameworks is hard.) Sometimes the complaints are thinly veiled anti-framework rants, which is fine, I suppose, if you prefer the good old days of 1998. But God help you if you try to create anything really complicated or useful.

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