You hired a new developer for a project you’re working on and she seems to have solved all of your problems. She’s been on the job for 3 days and she’s already suggested upgrades for 5 of your libraries and re-organized your JIRA issues. At every turn, she seems to validate your choice in hiring her. She’s found 8 bugs that were glaring and would have caused a critical meltdown. How terrible was your previous developer that he couldn’t have spotted any of this?? She’s baffled by his decision to use the XYZ framework and doesn’t understand why he chose to use Postgres instead of CouchDB for this particular application. She complains to you that the lack of a CDN is costing you HOURS in needless content serving. How could you have been so blind to not see any of this? Well, it wasn’t your job, right? That was your previous developers’ job and he seems to have failed miserably. Good riddance.
The curse of the present
Don’t worry — your situation is far from unique. I’ve seen it time and time again that a new developer comes in and seems to change everything almost overnight. She or he suggests new tools, new processes, new languages and new everything. All of this while badmouthing the previous developer or team. I’ve been on all sides of this fine play. I’ve been the “previous developer” who got badmouthed by the new guy. I’ve been the new guy that used the previous guy as my scapegoat. I’ve hired developers that have been in both positions. I’ve worked for companies that couldn’t see what was plain to me: this happens all the time.
It’s what I call the “curse of the present.” When you, as a developer, look at the choices used to build a particular application, you’re blown away at the poor decisions made at every turn. “Why, oh why, is this built with Rails when Node.js would be so much better?” or “how could the previous developer not have forseen that the database would need referential integrity when they chose MongoDB?” But what you may not realize is that you are seeing the application as it exists today. When the previous developer (or team) had to develop it, they had to deal with a LOT of unknowns. They had to make many decisions under a cloak of opacity. You are cursed with the knowledge of the present, so the system seems like a hackjob of bad decisions.
Pass the blame
Another reason that developers tend to blame the previous developer is because it’s easy. The previous developer no longer has to justify his actions and isn’t there to defend himself. So blaming him is super easy. If a developer doesn’t want to work very hard or solve a particular problem, it’s far easier to blame something inherent in the system rather than laziness (or incomptence). When the boss asks “what’s the timeline on the [whatever],” it’s easy and convenient to say “well, normally it would only take 2 weeks, but since we’re dealing with an older version of [some library], it’ll probably take a month.” It may be true that the older version will take more time, but it also may be true that you, the developer, just don’t feel like working very hard this month.
You hired this new developer for a reason. After a series of interviews, some coding tests and whatnot, you finally hired this person. Now, this person has to justify that they’re worthwhile. Developers tend to think that a great way to do this is by making BIG changes early on. Implementing all sorts of processes that don’t need to be implemented and introducing all sorts of tools that no one else on the team has heard of. I’ve seen countless permutations of this behavior, where a developer will come around and say how bad using Pivotal is and that we now need to use JIRA or they can’t believe we’re still using Subversion and how we should move to Git. It justifies the knowledge that we have and hopefully impresses you, oh glorious boss.
I think it’s a bad practice to simply blame the previous developer or team for something. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they made the best decisions they could under the constraints they had. They didn’t have the knowledge of the fully baked system. In the short term, it may impress the overlords that brought you into the organization, but in the long run, it hurts us all. We’ve all been that developer that’s been blamed for countless problems after we leave — it doesn’t feel very good to know that it’s happening to you, so why do it to others? Take the moral high ground. Even if it is the previous guy’s fault, don’t frame it like that.
Be a hero in the long run by being a solid team player that makes good judgement calls whenever you can. Don’t be the short-term hero that throws people under the bus. You’ll probably get away with it, but we (the developer community) won’t like you very much if you do. Now, granted, there are certain cases where the previous developer was a truly terrible developer. In those cases, make the stakeholders aware of everything all at once, rather than as a convenient excuse for you to use whenever you either don’t want to do something or can’t.