The infinite arrogance of software developers

Yeah, sorry for the bold title, but sometimes I get tired of software developers expecting they figure out the secrets of the universe. And let’s be honest: at some time in my career, I was one of them. Sometimes by accident, sometimes… not. Anyway.

First, a little disclaimer: this post is not targeted at anyone in special, and I’ll not mention anyone here – just quotes, slightly modified. Anyway, although I love my profession, sometimes it feels like we’re this programmer guy from XKCD:

I'm here to solve it with Algorithms, then six months latter: wow, this problem is really hard (Megan: You don't say?)

There are LOTS of things that bother me at this programmer mentality, so I’ll separate this post into multiple sections. If you’re reading this and feels like it’s a personal attack against you, please don’t – I’m not really attacking anyone, just trying to change a toxic mentality that poisons our abilities to be better professionals, people, and human beings.

“Not a real programmer”

The first one is classic: people define what a “programmer” is, based on their own experiences and expertise, and dismiss people that don’t fall into their categories. Wikipedia, for example, defines Computer Programming as:

Computer programming is the process of designing and building an executable computer program to accomplish a specific computing result or to perform a particular task

As for the “Computer program part”, Wikipedia defines as:

In imperative programming, a computer program is a sequence of instructions in a programming language that a computer can execute or interpret. In declarative programming, a computer program is a set of instructions.

So it’s hard to find a good definition on what programming is, but if we try to merge the two explanations from Wikipedia, we get that, to program a computer, you have to design an executable “sequence of instructions” or “a set of instructions” so that you can accomplish a specific result or perform a particular task.

Please, use the right terms for “typing”…

Names matter. That’s one of the things that I learned, working multiple years on programming software. When you have something called “integration”, for example, that means different things for different people, that’s a recipe for disaster.

That’s why I get quite triggered when people use Untyped / Typed, Weak / Strong typed, Uni / Multi typed, to describe programming languages – because it means different things to different people, or are simply wrong. So let’s dive into it:

Untyped languages or languages without types are quite rare: Assembly is the most interesting example (there’s literally no types in Assembly: everything is a memory address, byte, word, etc). Some virtual machines’ bytecodes are also untyped. In this case, most languages are typed. Ruby, for example, have types, and you can dispatch different behavior depending on the type of the caller (because it’s a class-based object-oriented language). Clojure is also typed, because you can do type-based polymorphism with protocols using defprotocol and defrecord for example. You can also use deftype, and if there’s a specific command to define types, how can we call it “untyped”?

Weak / Strong typed is a term that’s hard to define. Some people say that it’s when you have pointers, because you can bypass the typing at all; others, when the compiler erases typing at run-time; some say that’s when the language tries to coerce and implicitly convert from one type to another, to try to figure out what you want…

Now, a language that allows you to bypass typing because you have pointers is called “memory unsafe”; if the compiler erases typing information, is called “type erasure”; coercion of course is called “coercion”, and can be “automatic” or “manual” coercion (for example, most languages try to coerce integers to decimals at some point); even the ability to convert between types is controversial: on Ruby and Scala, operators are also methods of the class (and, on Ruby, you can rewrite methods on classes that already exist, so automatic conversion is a user-defined feature) – so, please use the right term.

Unityped means a language that only have one type. I believe only some markup languages enter on this classification. Calling a language that have multiple types as unityped because someone imagined that all these multiple types can somewhat collapse into a single one is, at minimum, strange; and also, again, we do have a term for languages like Javascript, Ruby, Python, Smalltalk, and Clojure.

The perfect programming language (for me)

Disclaimer: the perfect programming language does not exist. Even if it did, different people want different things, so probably the ideas in this post would not reflect the ideas from different people. With that being said, let’s start with a little background:

I usually prefer dynamic languages. There are also moments when I miss static typing, but most of the time the “code/solution exploration” and a good REPL (and code design) do the job of reasoning about the shape of my data.

Except when it doesn’t. Then, things get ugly. Real fast. There’s always bad code that you need to work with, even one that you wrote about six months ago, and now you’re dumbfounded, looking at the code trying to remember what the hell were you thinking when you wrote the code and why you did think it was a good idea to wrote it that way at all. It happens with everyone. And that’s when static typing can (and will) help: it reasons about your data. You can have a variable named a, but at least you know it have the fields b: String, c: Int, whatever that means. But it helps.

Maybe we could have a language that allows you to turn on/off the typing whenever you wanted? With better REPL support? So, this would be my dream language to work with.