Why PHP Is Fun and Easy But Python Is Marriage Material

Written By: Dharmesh Shah October 27, 2010

I think a lot about choices and decisions at startups.  That is the life of a software entrerpreneur:  It’s a stready stream of hard work, occasionally punctuated by some really hard decisions.  The decisions that are hardest are not the ones where you have the least amount of information — they are the ones that are hardest to undo or reverse. 

By this defintiion, picking the language/platform to use at a startup is one of the harder decisions.  It’s very hard to change this decision.  Here’s the story of how I made not one but two big language/platform decisions, neither of which really worked out — and which I’m now paying the price for.  The good news is that the company did very well despite these mistakes for two simple reasons:  First, I didn’t make awful choices — just sub-optimal ones.  Second, success in the early days of a startup is much more about getting market validation and traction than anything else.  And, as it turns out, customers really don’t care whether your SaaS application is built in PHP, C#, Ruby or Python.

On with my story…

When I kicked off my startup, HubSpot, over 4 years ago (June, 2006) I wrote a set of articles on the topic of choosing a language/platform — specifically for startups.  At the time, I was trying to pick between C# and Python for my then fledgling startup.  The article was aptly titled, “Python vs. C#: Business and Technology Tradeoffs”.  The article was very widely read, and still continues to drive traffic (likely because it ranks #1 in Google for “Python vs C#”).HubSpot Labs Logo

I made some pretty good arguments in that article, most of which I still stand behind to this day.  We ended up picking C# at the time.  The decision came down to one strong, dominant factor:  I was more productive in C# than I was in anything else, and that mattered — a lot.  Why?  Because it was basically just me.  In the early days of a startup, you’re looking to mitigate unnecessary risk and get to market as fast as humanly possible.  Within reason, my general advice is  “go with what you know”.  By “within reason”, I mean if what you know is a relatively mainstream language (Python, PHP, Ruby, Java, C# etc.).  There are definitely times to learn new things and experiment with new technologies — the early days of your product development is not the best time.  Either you need to know the language/platfrom from soup to nuts yourself — or you need to have immediate access to people you can rely on, that do.  So, I picked C# and .Net — which frankly, if I had to do over, I wouldn’t have picked (more on that later).  But, based on my circumstances at the time, I thought I chose rationally, and I was solving for the company, not my ego or enjoyment.  The good news is that the mistake wasn’t fatal.  [Side note: Patrick, if you’re reading this, I’ll admit, you were right. I should write a follow-up article on this on the topic of trust].

A couple of years later, I was faced with a different decision.  I was working in HubSpot Labs.  HubSpot Labs is a “startup within a startup”.  We don’t have a written charter for HubSpot Labs (because frankly, I’m not exactly sure how to write one of those, or if I did, who would read it).  But, the idea was to build cool free tools (see http://grader.com).  These tools pulled in website visitors, increased visibility of HubSpot, and helped us get some interesting data that we used to benefit our core business.  At the time all this was happening, I was trying to decide between PHP, Python and Ruby.  I knew I wanted a dynamic language, and I had whittled things down to those three choices.  I picked PHP, and Python was my second choice.  Though Ruby/Rails would likely have been fine too, there’s something about it that I just found unnatural.  If I had a dog, the dog would bark at the Ruby code.  Python just feels more “natural” to me.  But that's likely related to my C/C++ background.  But, I digress.  Back to why I chose PHP: Main reasons were: 1) It was easy to get started.  2) It had decent OOP support.  3) There were lots of other people using it.  4) It was lingua franca on the web.  The language served me well.  It was an easy transition from my C++/C# days, and combined with an MVC framework like CodeIgniter, things weren’t too bad.  I actually had fun developing in the language, and after the first few months, I felt that the code I was producing was about as good as some of the code I’m most proud of throughout my professional career. 

I have a love/like relationship with PHP.  Sometimes I have good days, and sometimes I have great days.

During my 2+ years of PHP development, I launched a bunch of web applications.  Cumulatively, they’re getting millions of page views a month now.  Not bad.  No major issues.

So, you might then be wondering, why switch away from PHP and move to Python now?  Don’t I have better things to do with my time?  Did I give in to peer pressure or somehow decide I wanted one more chance at being one of the “cool kids”.  I’ll attempt at answering some of those questions.

Why HubSpot Labs Is Switching From PHP to Python

Here are some of the tradeoffs (PHP wins on some fronts, Python in others), for those faced with the decision now.  Note:  The context here is a startup that is a bit further along (HubSpot was 2 years old and had about 50 employees at the time of this decision).  But, some of the arguments still apply, even if you’re earlier stage.

1. Python is well designed, PHP is not.  Although PHP is a completely workable language — it’s still not an elegant language.  In the short to mid-term, that’s not a particularly big problem.  Any experienced developer that can create great software can likely also write really good software in PHP.  (I’m talking about PHP 5+ here — and ignoring all the ugliness that came before).  But, there are limits.  I’m not particularly bothered by the weird idiosyncracies of PHP (the “needle vs. haystack” problem).  I can get over that pretty quickly.  It’s the other stuff — which is deeper and more nuanced.  As a “classically trained” developer (undergrad CompSci), I appreciate that Python gets a bunch of the language stuff “right”.  It’s about how reflection is implemented.  How functions are first-class objects.  It’s all the little things, which in aggregate, make for better cleaner, more elegant code.  Although it’s perfectly possible to write good code in PHP, it’s much easier to write great code in Python.  It is clear that Python was architected to be a robust, well-designed and well thought-out language.  PHP “just happened”.  Not to knock PHP (I actually love working in PHP) — but Python is just a better language.  [Note:  I still am viscerally troubled by the using whitespace to indicate code structure, instead of just using braces like the rest of the sane world, but it’s a relatively minor gripe].

2. Python has a “clear” web framework winner:  Although conceptually I like having choices (and I believe in openness), practically, I really, really like standards.  All things being equal, I much prefer that all of us are working with the same frameworks and libraries.  Python mostly has that with Django.  It’s close to the de-facto choice for web frameworks in Python.  Maybe not quite as dominant as Rails in Ruby-land — but close.  Contrast that to PHP where we have Symfony, Zend, CodeIgniter, Kohana — and others.  On the one hand, this kind of competition is good.  I’m sure they’re all great frameworks (I use CodeIgniter right now), but the fact that there’s no clear winner means that the market is fragmented.  And, fragmentation is bad.  It’s particularly bad when it comes to web frameworks.  The learning curve these days is not a new language (it takes a proficient programmer just a few days to get her arms around the basics of a new language).  The learning curve is with the framework.  The deeper and richer the framework is, the more there is to learn.  Don’t get me wrong, I love frameworks (dating back all the way to the Object Windows Library that Borland had for TurboPascal).  Frameworks have an upfront cost, but provide a ton of value long-term.  But, if there are a bunch of different frameworks floating around, the odds that any given person is working in the same framework you are lower.  And as such, getting someone new up to speed takes longer.  In Python land, the clear web framework winner is Django.  This means that if I find a great Python developer for the team (more on this later), they’ve likely used Django.  That makes life much easier. 

3. PHP is lingua franca in the world of the web.  One of the the early reasons I picked PHP, which is still true, is that it has become lingua franca on the web.  If someone releases a new API, and provides a “wrapper” for convenience, the first language supported will likely be PHP.  If you’re looking to build WordPress plugins, you’re going to be doing it in PHP.  In fact, many of the biggest open source projects out there, that you might consider leveraging, are based on PHP.  So, knowing PHP is a very, very useful thing.  My advice is that even if you do decide to go with Python — be at least “reasonably fluent” in PHP — it’ll come in handy.

4. Low-End Web Hosting is a non-issue.  Many people make the argument that PHP is a great choice of platform for startups because you can find a $9.99/month hosting provider that supports PHP.  No need for higher-end hosting and you save money.  I think that’s a poor reason.  Yes, it’s nice to know that there are thousands of hosting providers out there that all support PHP, and that you can get hosting really cheap as a result.  But, if you’re picking a language based on spending $10/month vs. $50/month or $100/month — you’re focused on the wrong thing.  Assuming that you stick with your low-cost provider for 18 months (a long time in startup-land), you’ll have maybe saved $900.  That’s just not a lot of money.  My advice:  Recognize that there are things like Amazon EC2 out there now, and over time, it’s going to be just as easy to spin up servers for Python as it is for PHP. 

5. Not all Python fans are fad-focused elitists .  One of the arguments I hear continually online goes something like this:  “PHP is a perfectly fine language, and folks pushing Python are just fad-focused elitists that want to work on the latest cool new thing, instead of just picking what works and focusing on building apps that solve customer problems.”  I’m paraphrasing a bit, but that’s the gist of it.  I can see why people sometimes feel this way.  Lets say you’re something like me:  You’ve learned PHP and used it to build and launch “real world” apps.  For you, the cost of change is high (maybe even prohibitively high).  Really hard to justify the change, because though you might grudgingly admit that Python is better, it’s not better enough to warrant switching.  You’ve got a startup to grow, you can’t be bothered with trying to join the cool kids.  But, I’m to advocate for some empathy here.  Lets say you were on the outside looking in (i.e. you’re a gifted developer looking to join a cool new startup).  Since you’re really good, and demand for great developers always exceeds supply, you essentially get to pick where you want to work.  All things being equal, you’re going to pick the place that is doing Python vs. PHP.  Of course, not all things are equal, and you might actually pick the startup whose business you think has the best chances of success or whose founders you like and respect.  But, often, it’s hard to know that stuff upfront, so you focus on what you do know — that developing in Python’s a better “bet”.  I wouldn’t fault people for solving for their self-interest and preference.  They’re not trying to talk you into switching, they’re just saying that it matters to them.

6. Low Learning are less important than high ceilings.  If you’re in the software development business as a career choice (i.e. you’re going to do it for a long time), then the larger consideration should be what’s going to create the most value for you long-term.  Some languages, like PHP, have very low learning curves — it’s super-easy to get started.  And, that’s awesome.  It’s easy-going, fun, and you feel super-productive (especially if you’re making a big change to something new).  But, once you get past that initial dating period, you need to think about your future.  You want to forge a relationship with a language that will be long-lasting, rich and deep.  A language that brings the best out in you — over the long-term.  Apologies for the strained metaphor here — but it had some resonance for me.  So, back to the title of this article:  PHP Is Fantastically Fun, But Python Is Marriage Material.  Apologies for the strained metaphor, but it resonated with me.  I’ve been programming for a long time, it’s my calling, and with any luck, I expect to do it for a couple of more decades. Since I'm going to get into a long-term relationship with a language, I figured Python's a pretty good bet.

Whew!  That ended up being longer than I expected.  If you made it this far, thanks for reading!  By the way, if you’re a gifted Python developer in the Boston area and looking to join what is quite possibly the best company to work for in Boston (we won an award, so it must be true), would love to connect.  The HubSpot developer interviews are a bit, um, rigorous, but I promise that you’ll meet some people that will have made the time spent worthwhile, even if things don’t work out.  If you’re interested, just drop me an email at {dshah} @ {OnStartups}{daht-com}.  By the way, in case you didn’t know, I’m the founder/CTO at HubSpot, and an all-around nice guy.  Just ask anybody. 

And, if there are any arguments you’d make on either side (PHP or Python), would love to hear them.  Don’t want to start yet another language war, but I’m fascinated by the topic of making hard decisions at startups, and this is one of the hardest. 

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