Excerpts from Coders At Work: Joe Armstrong Interview

I've been reading Peter Seibel's excellent book, Coders at Work, which is a transcription of interviews with a dozen or so very well known and impactful programmers. After the first two interviews, I found myself itching to highlight certain sections, and then I thought, heck, why not post some of the bits I found most interesting? This is a book everyone should be aware of, and it's surprisingly readable. Highly recommended.

This is the first in what I expect to be a dozen or so blog posts, time permitting.

The excerpts below come from Seibel's interview with Joe Armstrong, the inventer of Erlang.

My comments are labeled 'CTB'.


On learning to program

Seibel: How did you learn to program? When did it all start?

Armstrong: When I was at school. I was born in 1950 so there weren't many computers around then. The final year of school, I suppose I must have been 17, the local council had a mainframe computer -- probably an IBM. We could write Fortran on it. It was the usual thing -- you wrote your programs on coding sheets and you sent them off. A week later the coding sheets and the punch cards came back and you had to approve them. But the people who made the punch cards would make mistakes. So it might go backwards and forwards one or two times. And then it would finally go to the computer center.

Then it went to the computer center and came back and the Fortran compilter had stopped at the first syntactic error in the program. It didn't even process the remainder of the program. It was something like three months to run your first program. I learned then, instead of sending one program you had to develop every single subroutine in parallel and sned the lot. I think I wrote a little program to dispay a chess board -- it would plot a chess board on the printer. But I had to write all the subroutines as parallel tasks because the turnaround time was so appallingly bad.

CTB: I think it's fascinating to interpret this statement in light of Erlang's pattern of small components, working in parallel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erlang_(programming_language). Did Armstrong shape his mental architecture in this pattern from the early mainframe days, and then translate that over to programming design? Also, this made me think about unit testing in a whole new way.

On modern gizmos like "hierarchical file systems", and productivity

Armstrong: The funny thing is, thinking back, I don't think all of these modern gizmos actually make you any more productive. Hierarchical file systems -- how do they make you more productive? Most of software development goes on in your head anyway. I think having worked with that simpler system imposes a kind of disciplined way of thinking. If you haven't got a directory system and you have to put all the files in one directory, you have to be fairly disciplined. If you haven't got a revision control system, you have to be fairly disciplined. Given that you apply that discipline to what you're doing it doesn't seem to me to be any better to have hierarchical file systems and revision control. They don't solve the fundamental problem of solving your problem. They probably make it easier for groups of people to work together. For individuals I don't see any difference.

CTB: If your tools require you to be as good as Joe Armstrong in order to get things done, that's probably not a generalizable solution...

On calling out to other languages, and Domain Specific Lanaguages

Seibel: So if you were writing a big image processing work-flow system, then would you write the actual image transformation in some other language?

Armstrong: I'd write them in C or assembler or something. Or I might actually write them in a dialect of Erlang and then cross-compile the Erlang to C. Make a dialect - this kind of domain-specific language kind of idea. Or I might write Erlang programs which generate C programs rather than writing the C programs by hand. But the target language would be C or assembler or something. Whether I wrote them by hand or generated them would be the interesting question. I'm tending toward automatically generating C rather than writing it by hand because it's just easier.

CTB: heh. So, I'd just generate C automatically from a dialect of Erlang...

On debugging

Seibel: What are the techniques that you use there? Print statements?

Armstrong. Print statements. The great gods of programming said, "Thou shall put printf statements in your program at the point where yout hink it's gone wrong, recompile, and run it.

Then there's -- I don't know if I read it somewhere or if I invented it myself -- Joe's Law of Debugging, which is that all errors will be plus/minus three statements of the place you last changed the program.

CTB: one surprising commonality amongst many of the interviews thus far is the lack of use (or disdain for) debuggers. Almost everyone trots out print statements!

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