Monday, September 16, 2013

The language you code in could say a lot about your developer culture


In his essay on "Race and Language" Edward Augustus Freeman suggested that language, rather than race (genetic similarities), might be a surer indicator of cultural kinship among peoples. Professor Freeman wrote: "Every word that a man speaks is the result of a real, though doubtless unconscious, act of his free will. ... A man cannot, under any circumstances, choose his own skull; he may, under some circumstances, choose his own language. He must keep the skull which has been given him by his parents; he cannot, by any process of taking thought, determine what kind of skull he will hand on to his own children. But he may give up the use of the language which he has learned from his parents, and he may determine what language he will teach to his children." As such, the choice of language made individually and in the aggregate points to attributes of the language and those already speaking it which the new speaker of the language appreciates.

Perhaps this is why few topics among developers can start a 'religious war' faster than that of programming language.

The use of language is in essence a tool to capture an idea and communicate it to another. In IT we largely look at languages as tools to efficiently solve a problem. By 'solve' we really mean 'communicate an algorithm to the machine'. Just as some spoken languages are better for communicating facts or legal concepts and others are better for poetry or philosophical abstractions, each programming language is more efficient at 'solving' some technical problems than others. One may be excellent for modeling relationships, another for solving concurrency problems.
Looking at language this way is a good pragmatic approach to choosing 'the right language for the job', but it also can subtly mask or neglect other factors in language choice. Namely, the speaker and prospective audience plays a large part in what language communication is captured and how that communication is shaped. The above take on the use of programming language measures its efficiency in processes or cycles or memory consumed. It is the run-time efficiency - or how easily the computer understands and can execute the message. However, when using high-level programming languages, that is really misleading. It is really more of a measure of how good the compiler or interpreter for a given language is at translating the solution into efficient byte-code. So, compilers and interpreters aside, the real audience to gauge the efficiency of the language used is - humans.
Looking at how we use language it seems to lie upon a continuum between communicating to a large or a small audience. On one hand we have the language of media news reports, which linguists will often point to as a general epitome of the common speech of a people. It is intended to be understandable and consumed by the largest portion of a population. Prose is also near this end of the spectrum. On the other end you may find cryptography, where the audience is narrowed to perhaps only one other person. Sonnets, slang and technical jargon are closer to this end. They use conventions and specialized vocabulary which only a smaller subset of the population would have exposure to. Obviously a particular communication can lie closer to one end or the other given both the speaker and the audience. For instance a technical treatise might use highly exclusive vocabulary, but be written utilizing the most standard academic grammar and style. This 'regulated language' ensures that the message, while directed to technical specialists, will be understandable to the widest range of that population. It could even be accessed by outsiders armed with a good dictionary. Slang, on the other hand, often develops out the needs of the speaker... Complex grammar and punctuation is boiled down sometimes to only partial words. This makes the message easier and faster to say. To achieve this, the complexities of grammar and punctuation are replaced by context. One must understand this context, often cultural, to unpack the meaning behind this terse communication. It is particularly difficult for outsiders to master, and often intentionally so.

The intended range of audience has certain temporal effects as well. A loose jargon may make it easy for a small, tight knit group to communicate efficiently. However, it will be much harder to decode the meaning years later, perhaps even by members of that same community. Formal and standardized grammars and punctuation provide a degree of staying power to a language, allowing it to be understood for generations.
On can see this in development shops where one language is the exclusive language of development. On one hand a particular language may have been chosen for its similarity to human language. This may make translating business requirements into code easier. The same language may make it extremely difficult to describe the algorithm for performing a particular calculation. With greater complexity, it makes it more likely that a mistake will be introduced. The wordiness of this complexity can also make it harder to find the mistake. It also assumes that those writing code write well in their natural language. Run-on sentences can exist in code. A run-on piece of code is recognizable by loose cohesion, which is well known to negatively impact its brittleness and maintainability.

As a developer it is important to know the ways of expressing algorithms that is most natural to the language being developed in. This is called Idiomatic Code. However, a more seasoned Lead or Architect may realize that the eventual human viewers of the code may dictate different ways of expressing the same algorithm. This may even call for a completely different language to be used. Perhaps it makes sense to write code in one language, but to write the tests against that code in another. Testing in another language is often a good way to extend the audience of code written to an otherwise smaller audience.

This also brings up the impact of language on developer culture. Code written in a language which is only understood by one group within a team can lead to a closed culture. Think of those developers who almost have a visceral reaction to coding in anything but their favorite language. This language is usually that of a closed culture. Entire myths can be constructed about the superiority of both the language and those who code in it. Ultimately, this can threaten to alienate the developers from others on their team (testers, BA's, designers) as well as the development community at large. Uncle Bob Martin touched upon this in his 2009 talk "What killed Smalltalk could kill Ruby too".

Then there is the case where the language is chosen for you. The experience in this scenario can range from mind-expanding to dehumanizing. Surely the Junior Developer can learn much from being made to code in another language, particularly if that language has been chosen by a group of seasoned veterans across an appropriate section of the team. In this case the developer may be introduced into whole new ways of communicating and problem solving. On the other hand, there is the case where the language is imposed by a corporate decision made years earlier which may have little bearing upon the way your team works today or the problems it is being asked to solve now. This is the fallacy of simply 'buying' a language as a tool among equal tools. When that happens, the choice can become less about the effectiveness of the 'tool' and more about the packaging/marketing (e.g. - IDE's, plugins, reporting tools, support plans, name recognition, third-party-apis and frameworks, etc.). In these cases, the developers may often feel as if they are being forced to use an inferior tool for what seems like an arbitrary reason.

Finding pragmatic ways to introduce other languages where appropriate can mitigate some of the negative cultural impacts and keep communication flowing. It also can make the developers 'smarter' by making them look at and 'speak' about the problem using different paradigms than they are used to. This is much the same as people who speak multiple languages. Becoming a polyglot programmer may just make you a better designer or architect as your pool of ways of looking at a problem will be larger.

What other ways does the language you code in impact your team or say something about you?