I Miss Heroku's DevEx

A 7 minute read.

If you've never really experienced it before, it's gonna sound really weird. Basically the main way that Heroku worked is that they would set up a git remote for each "app" it hosted. Each "app" had its source code in a git repo and a "Procfile" that told Heroku what to do with it. So when it came time to deploy that app, you'd just git push heroku main and then Heroku would just go off and build that app and run it somewhere in the cloud. You got back a HTTPS URL and then bam you have a website.

The developer experience didn't stop there. Most of how Heroku apps are configured are via environment variables, and there were addons that let you tell Heroku things like "hi yes I would like one (1) postgres please" and the platform would spin up a database somewhere and drop a config variable into the app's config. It was magic. Things just worked and it left you free to go do what made you money.

Heroku's free tier got me the in I needed to make my career really start. If I didn't have something like Heroku in my life I doubt that my career would be the same or even I would be the same person I am today. It's really hard to describe what having access to a platform that lets you turn ideas into production quality code does to your output ability. I even ended up reinventing Heroku a few times in my career (working for Deis and later reinventing most of the core of Heroku as a project between jobs), but nothing really hit that same level of wonder/magic that Heroku did.

I ended up working there and when I did I understood why Heroku had fallen so much. Heroku is owned by Salesforce and Salesforce doesn't really understand what they had acquired with Heroku. Heroku had resisted integration into the larger Salesforce organization and as a result was really really starved for headcount. I had to have a come-to-jesus meeting with the CTO of Heroku where I spelled out my medical needs and how the insurance that the contracting agency they were using was insufficent (showing comparisons between bills for blood draws where paying with the insurance ended up costing me more than not using it). I got hired and then that was just in time for Salesforce to really start pulling Heroku into the fold.

The really great part about working at Heroku was that setting up a new service was so easy that the majority of the productionalization checklist was just enabling hidden feature flags to lock down the app. I'm surprised that didn't get streamlined.

The Heroku I joined no longer exists. I joined Heroku but I left Salesforce. I can't blame any of my coworkers from Heroku from fleeing the sinking ship. The ship has been sinking for years but the culture of Heroku really stuck around long enough that it was hard to realize the ship was sinking.

It can really be seen with how long it's taken Heroku to react to that one horrible security event they've been dealing with. Based on what I remember about the internal architecture (it was a microservices tire fire unlike you have ever seen, it's part of the inspiration that lead me to write this post) and the notes that have been put on the public facing status page, I'm guessing that most of Heroku is "legacy" code (IE: nobody on the team that made this service works here anymore) at this point. When I was there most of the services on my team were "legacy" code that was production-facing, load-bearing and overall critical to the company succeeding; but it was built to be reliable enough that we could overall ignore it until it was actually falling over. But then because of the ways that things were chorded together it could take a very long time to actually fix issues because the symptoms were all over the place.

Don't get me wrong, I loved working there but it was mostly for the people. That and the ability to say that I helped make Heroku better for the next generation. If you've ever used the metrics tab on Heroku, chances are that you've encountered my code indirectly. If you've ever done Heroku threshold autoscaling or response time alerting, you've dealt with code I helped write. The body of Heroku remains but the soul has long since fled.

At the few points of my career that I have tried to reinvent Heroku (be it on my own or working for a company doing that), there has mostly been this weird realization that in order to have a thing like Heroku exist it really needs to be hosted by someone else in the cloud. One of the places I worked for was selling self-hosted Heroku on top of CoreOS and fleetd (remember fleetd? that was magical) and while it did have a lot of the same developer experience, it never really had the same magic feeling. I had the same problem with my own implementation. Sure you can get the app hosting part of Heroku fairly easily (and with Docker being as mature as it was at that point yeah it was fairly easy). But when it comes to the real experience of addons and the whole ecosystem there, you really need either to get very lucky or become an industry standard. Realistically though, you aren't going to be either lucky or an industry standard and then you need to also reinvent the next 80% of Heroku from scratch on hardware that you don't control. It's no wonder that ultimately failed (even though one of them was bought out by Microsoft after doing a weird Kubernetes pivot).

There was something really magical about the whole thing that I really miss to this day. Heroku was at least a decade ahead of its time as far as developer experience goes. Things Just Worked in ways that would probably put a lot of us out of jobs if they really took off. I miss the process for putting something on the internet to just be a git push and trust that the machine will just take care of it. I wonder if we'll ever really have something like that on top of Nix or NixOS.

If you're reading this before the 12th, welcome to an experiment! I've been wondering about how to make some of my posts Patreon exclusive for a week. This post was published for my patrons on the 5th of May. Please don't share this link around on social media until the 12th, but privately sharing it is okay.

This article was posted on M05 12 2022. Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.

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The art for Mara was drawn by Selicre.

The art for Cadey was drawn by ArtZora Studios.