Saturday, November 23, 2013

More than a language

Nearly 300 high-level programming languages have been developed during the last decade.
One can only nod when reading this quote: indeed there's hardly a month without a new language being announced. The fun part is that it's the opening sentence of "A Guide to PL/I", printed in 1969! Clearly the programming community has always been prolific when it comes to spawning languages.

And this trend makes sense: the tension between the need for general programming languages, which can deal with any type of problems, and the desire for specific programming languages, which best accommodate particular issues, is prone to give birth to a wide range of diverse languages.

As a programmer, you therefore have plenty of choice when it comes to picking up a language for your shiny new project. Beyond the intrinsic qualities of the language, I posit that there's more to consider when deciding. Here are a few points that come to mind:

  • Platform - What is the runtime environment that this languages runs on? Is it mature? Is it easy to install and upgrade? Can it be well monitored in production? Does it use system resources efficiently?
  • Ecosystem - Is there a large body of libraries available? Are these libraries mature? Does the community have a tradition for rolling out breaking changes in libraries?
  • Tooling - Are there any tools for crafting code with this language? Any auto-formatters so SCM conflicts are minimal? Any static analysis tools? Any dynamic analysis tools?
I haven't included the "availability of developers" criteria because I think it's a red herring. Indeed, I'm convinced any programmer worth hiring should be able to pick up a new language very quickly.

So if your project can accommodate risk and potential yak shaving, you can disregard these points and select a language only for itself. But for those building systems that should last and evolve gracefully, these extra criteria should be considered as much as the qualities of the language itself.

Are there any other aspects you typically consider when opting for a particular language that you'd like to share?