(Computer-programming) language wars a bit silly, but not irrational

I don’t know where I heard it (and it was probably not first hand) the
observation of how weird it is that in the 21st century computer professionals
segregate by the language they use to talk to the machine. It just seems silly, doesn’t it?

Programming language discussions (R vs Python for data science, C++ or Python
for computer vision, Java or C# or Ruby for webapps, …) are a stable of
geekdom and easy to categorize as silly. In this short post, I’ll argue that
that while silly they are not completely irrational.

Programming languages are mostly about tooling

Some languages are better than others, but most of what it matters is not
whether the language itself is any good, but how large the ecosystem around it
is. You can have a perfect language, but if there is no support for it in your
favorite editor/IDE, no good HTTPS libraries which can handle HTTP2.0, then
working in it will be efficient or even less pleasant than working in Java. On
the other hand, PHP is a terrible terrible language, but its ecosystem is (for
its limited domain) very nice. R is a slightly less terrible version of this: not a great language, but a lot of nice libraries and a good culture of documentation.

Haskell is a pretty nice programming language, but working in it got much nicer
once stack appeared on the scene. The
language is the same, even the set of libraries is the same, but having a
better way to install packages is enough to fundamentally change your
experience.

On the other hand, Haskell is (still?) enough of a niche language than nobody
has yet written a tool comparable to ccache for
the C/C++ world (instantaneous rebuilds are amazing for a compiled language).

The value of your code increases if you program in a popular language

This is not strictly true: if the work is self-contained, then it may be very
useful on its own even if you wrote it in COBOL, but often the more people can
build upon your work, the more valuable that work is. So if your work is
written in C or Python as opposed to Haskell or Ada, everything else being
equal, it will be more valuable (not everything else is equal, though).

This is somewhat field-dependent. Knowing R is great if you’re a
bioinformatician, but almost useless if you’re writing webserver code. Even
general-purpose languages get niches based on history and tools. Functional
programming languages somehow seems to be more popular in the financial sector
than in other fields (R has a lot of functional elements, but is not typically
thought of as a functional language; probably because functional languages are
“advanced” and R is “for beginners”).

Still, a language that is popular in its field will make your own code more
valuable. Packages upon which you depend will be more likely to be maintained,
tools will improve. If you release a package yourself, it will be more used
(and, if you are in science, maybe even cited).

Changing languages is easy, but costly

Any decent programmer can “pick up” a new language in a few days. I can
probably even debug code in any procedural language even without having ever
seen it before. However, to really become proficient, it often takes much
longer: you need to encounter and internalize the most natural way to do things
in the new language, the quirks of the interpreter/compiler, learn about
different libraries and tools, &c. None of this is “hard”, but it all takes a
long time.

Programming languages have network effects

This is all a different way of saying that programming languages have network
effects
. Thus, if I use language X, it is generally better for me if others
also use it. Not always explicitly, but I think this is the rationale for the programming language discussions.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s