Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lessons Learned while Introducing a New Programming Language

I've used a lot of languages (professionally) over the years: (off the top of my head) Cold Fusion, HTML, Javascript, php, SQL, CSS, ASP(classic & .net), C#, Ruby, Flex, Java, & Clojure. Each language has pros and cons. Being a programmer, it's easiest to discuss the cons - and in general I believe it was best said:
I hate all programming languages - Matt Foemmel
I think it's important to start with this in mind. At some point you're going to hate what you're advocating, so imagine how other people feel about it.

In 2008 I introduced Clojure into a DRW codebase. This blog entry focuses on the adoption lessons I've learned in the past few years.

Language Selection
Introducing a new language to an organization isn't an easy task; if you're going to succeed you're probably going to need to pick a language that satisfies a large technical need and is also considered socially acceptable. I was writing Java 100% of the time when I joined DRW, despite the fact that a large portion of the code I was writing only needed to run in eye-ball time (250ms). Java was absolutely the right choice for the Faster Than Eye-Ball Time code we were writing, but using Java for the other code always made me feel like I was unnecessarily paying the Java verbosity tax.

On occasion I would mention the Java verbosity tax, and I found that my boss was actually interested in looking more closely at JRuby. I think JRuby would have been a win for us, but for me it was more interesting to hear that I had an ally if I wanted to explore non-Java options. If JRuby was on the table, then I knew that any high-level, dynamically typed language would also likely be on the table.

However, before I'd even discovered any JRuby curiosity, I'd already begun looking into Haskell. Generally, software in trading firms needs to run "fast." If I was going to successfully introduce a new language it was going to need to run "almost as fast as Java." I'd heard good things about Haskell's speed, and it also fulfilled another adoption desire of mine:
A language that doesn't affect the way you think about programming, is not worth knowing - Alan Perlis
I believed that if I found a language that was "performant enough", allowed us to deliver at a faster pace, and improved our programming skills then the level of effort required for adoption would be justified.

I toyed with Haskell for a bit, but the adoption path seemed a bit too steep. There's the effort it takes to learn Haskell, but more importantly: we were already on the JVM. If I was going to get any support, I needed something that was easy to sneak into our existing infrastructure. Enter Clojure. Clojure is performant enough, more succinct than Java, and sufficiently different to anything else I'd previously worked with. Clojure is also dynamically typed and high level (like Ruby), so I was hoping to get some support from my boss.

Causing my teammates as little pain as possible was a very large requirement - I believed this was key to gaining adoption. Clojure appeared to be the best choice due to the fact that we were already using:
  • IntelliJ all day
  • JUnit to run all of our tests
  • TeamCity for CI & artifact creation
  • The JVM on our servers
  • Yourkit for profiling

Clojure was the language that gave me everything I was looking for and had the easiest adoption path for the rest of the team.

I would have preferred Haskell or OCaml from a learning perspective, but they didn't seem like practical choices - and I doubt I would have had as much success getting them in production. While I need to be an expert in many things Clojure related, I relied on the JVM server settings that someone else has determined to be "the best". If I had chosen Haskell or OCaml I'd have had to become an expert on a much larger scope of topics (e.g. deployment, memory model, libraries, new tools, etc).

I believed then, and I still believe today that Clojure was the best choice given our technical needs and the social context.

Hello World
Introducing a language is a delicate act. There's a bunch of valid concerns that you're going to need to address. I wasn't exactly sure how my teammates were going to react to the introduction of Clojure, so I wrote the original code in my own time at home. I knew that we needed some integration tests for our application; however, no one was actively working on implementing anything. I began by writing them in Java and then wrote Clojure versions as well. I knew enough Clojure that I was able to showcase it's succinctness - something I knew the team would value in integration tests. Additionally, since the tests aren't part of the production running code there were no real speed concerns to consider.

Integration tests are a good place to introduce a new language, but any non-production code will probably be an equally good choice. For example, you could also choose database migration scripts, log file parsers, 3rd party software simulators, or deployment software. As long as you pick something that can fail without too much immediate pain you should be able to easily recover from any adoption issues.

After I had both sets of tests complete I showed both versions to the other developers on the team. I pointed out why I preferred the Clojure versions and asked if they would be willing to give Clojure a chance. I also made commitments that made it hard for them to say no to the experiment.

Your Commitment
I eased my teammates adoption fears by making the following commitments.
  • If you want to work on the code I'll work with you (if you want me to work with you).
  • If you don't want to work on the code I'll fix anything that's broken.
  • If the initial pain of working with a new language becomes unbearable to you, I'll rewrite everything in Java on my own time.
Obviously you'll need to get team buy-in before writing too much in your new language - otherwise you could be setting yourself up for working a lot of nights and weekends.

Tool Support
Chances are your team already has a tool-chain that they are happy with. Whatever that tool-chain is, your new language is going to need to play well within it. For me this meant being able to execute Clojure code within IntelliJ as easily as Java. For the most part the La Clojure plugin does the heavy lifting; however, I did need to write a testing framework that allowed me to run focused tests and seamlessly integrated with our existing JUnit test suite. The main point here is to remove any adoption friction that your team may be feeling. Learning a new language is a reasonable request, but changing the way a team works simply to accommodate an unproven (on that team) language choice is probably too much to ask.

You may also need to make some sacrifices as well. I prefer to write Clojure in emacs; however, I'd rather be writing Clojure(where appropriate) in IntelliJ than writing Java in IntelliJ. During the early/fragile adoption time, you're the one who's going to need to do the majority of the compromising.

Find allies
Chances are you'll have varying levels of interest in your new language. During the early days you should do anything you can to encourage others when they're interested; however, you don't want to push anything on anyone - that's the easiest way to find enemies. Hopefully you'll have a few teammates who are also as excited about a new language as you are - work closely with them on improving both of your skills. You'll want to get as many advocates as you can, otherwise you'll end up looking like the lone team member forcing the team to do something they aren't comfortable with.

It's also inevitable that you'll end up needing more research time, needing tool support, and dealing with more production issues than you originally anticipated. You're going to need a few other people to pick up some of the slack when you find yourself overextended. Even when things are going well you'll find yourself in need of allies to help you support the growing code written in a new language.

Lastly, the worst case scenario is you leaving a team and no one is left on the team that wants to support that code. It's pretty easy to see how a staffing situation can be portrayed as an adoption problem.

Know Everything
Obviously you can't actually know everything, but you're going to need to have an answer or be able to quickly get an answer to anything that comes up. You'll definitely want to read a few books on your new language before putting it in any codebase that your team members also work with or rely on. That's likely not enough though, you'll also need to know where to go if you run into issues. For Clojure this was the IRC channel for immediate answers and the mailing list for less time sensitive issues or issues that required a bit more explanation. If you're really looking to cover your bases you'll want to have some type of relationship with the creator or one of the community leaders.

Once people start adopting the language you introduced they're going to start doing things you didn't anticipate. You're going to need to know the dark corners of the language and the associated corner cases that exist. You'll also need to be an expert on issues such as memory allocation, performance, deployment, tool integration, library support, upgrade schedules, and everything else that is outside of the language's syntax.

The more allies you have, the less you'll need to 'know everything'; however, at the end of the day you're going to need to know as much as possible. If things ever go wrong, all eyes are going to be on you. That's the level of commitment you're making by introducing a language, so you better know what you're getting into.

Get Help
If your company is willing to let you introduce languages then they are probably a fairly supportive organization. Hopefully you'll have a bit of a training budget. See what opportunities you have for bringing in the language creator or the community leaders to work with you or provide training. If you're having issues with anything, having the creator of a language work with you is obviously a huge advantage. However, if things are going well it will probably benefit you to give up your training budget to contribute to a pool that could cover some training for other team mates who are interested in learning from the language's creator (or a community leader). Whether it's for you or interested allies, utilize your companies training budget to encourage adoption.

Be an Advocate, not a Zealot
At the end of the day it's not likely that everyone is going to have a compatible opinion. That's fine. Don't push your opinions on people who aren't interested. On most occasions the 'right' choice is the one that someone is passionate about. You might be passionate about your language, but a teammate of yours might be passionate about the old language. Neither of you needs to be right or wrong. People should work with what they are passionate about, and any attempt to make them work in another way is likely to do more harm than good. People who want to work with the new language will find a way to organize themselves together and people who don't will do the same thing. There's no reason to force adoption.

Originally, I approached the problem as "If I create a clearly superior solution then everyone will want to come along." This definitely turned out not to be the case, thus the blog entry on compatible opinions on software. I learned that one person's "obviously better" is another person's "obviously worse." In the end the team ended up organically dividing into people who worked on the Clojure code and those that didn't. This worked out well for both parties, as the people who wanted to work with Clojure had enough available to them, and the people who didn't weren't forced to.

The divide was more of a practice than an official split. We were all still part of "one team"; however, we tended to work on separate applications that communicated through messaging or not at all. I advocated strongly for a team split based on incompatible opinions and size (we were at 7, and I thought 4 and 3 would be fine), but we never ended up making anything official. Eventually other factors changed and the team shrunk to a size where a split was no longer necessary. I still believe splitting would have been the best solution if the team hadn't reorganized for other reasons.

The End
Introducing a new language is likely a multi-year affair for any moderately sized organization. There's not likely an "end" where your responsibilities go back to what they were before introducing a new language. On the flip-side, you get to use what you consider to be the best tool for the job. Hopefully it's worth it when it's all said and done. Personally, I'm happy with my choice, but I expect to be learning new lessons on this topic for at least the next few years as well.