Monthly Archives: September 2010

Too Easy or Too Hard

We hear a lot of people complaining that programming in Perl is too difficult, but I think that a lot of these problems stem from people making the opposite assumption – that writing Perl is easier than it actually is. Let me share a couple of examples. I’ve lightly disguised the companies in question – so if you think you recognise a place where we’ve worked together you’re probably wrong.

In the first, I’m working for a global organisation. Most of their bespoke software is written in Java, but (like pretty much every company) there are a few Perl programs running vital parts of the infrastructure. This company have also outsourced a lot of their maintenance work to another company in India. This Indian company has dozens of people who are dedicated to working on my client’s systems. But they are Java programmers and every once in while they need to do some work on a Perl program.

This company has an internal IRC network and there’s a Perl channel which I keep half an eye on whilst getting on with my work (which is maintaining a huge Perl program). A few times a day one of these Java programmers turns up on the Perl channel explaining a problem they have to solve in a Perl program and asking for help. In pretty much every case, the problem boils down to the Java programmer having major misconceptions about how Perl works. Perl programmers on the channel try their hardest to to help, but it’s often a frustrating experience. Usually the correct answer is “go away and read Learning Perl and Intermediate Perl, then you will understand how the code works”. But these programmers don’t have the time to do that. They need this task finished in an hour. Often it’s a task that could be easily achieved in an hour – but only after you’ve done the groundwork of understanding how Perl works.

The problem this company had was that Perl wasn’t seen as being as important as it actually was. People in the Indian company saw it as a “scripting language” that any of their (no doubt highly qualified) Java programmers would be able to use without any preparation or training. That’s clearly not the case.

But, I hear you say, that’s not fair. Perl and Java are really different languages. I’m glad you pointed that out as it’s a nice link to my second example.

In this example, I’m working for a dotcom company London. Like so many dotcom companies they have a Perl codebase that was thrown together five years ago in a couple of months by people who didn’t really know what they were doing. This company has the added problem that they are finding it hard to recruit people with Perl experience. So they start recruiting people with experience of languages like Python and Ruby in the belief that these languages are so similar that the programming skills are completely interchangeable.

And, of course, Perl, Ruby and Python are all a lot closer to each other than they are to languages like Java. But there are differences. Important differences that aren’t just syntactic. I can read Python and Ruby just fine. But if I got a job where I had to write a lot of either of those languages, I wouldn’t assume that I could just pick it up by osmosis, I’d get a book and read about the language. If I was going permanent at the company, I might even suggest that they send me on a training course.

Conversations with these non-Perl programmers often took a predictable course. They’d start complaining that the code was hard to read. This was hard to counter as a lot of the code was horrible. But if you pointed out some of the newer and better code, they wouldn’t see the improvement. They would insist that somehow Ruby or Python code was inherently easier to read than Perl code. I’d try to point out that Perl programmers find Perl code as easy to read as Python (or Ruby) programmers find Python (or Ruby).

So there seems to be this perception that Perl should be as easy to read as Random Programmer’s favourite language. And I don’t understand why that is. Just because I’ve been programming for almost thirty years, I don’t expect to be able to program in any language I happen to look at – well, certainly not well enough to be paid for doing it.

I’m not sure what we can do to counter this misconception. I think it probably stems from the late 90s when everyone was writing Perl. And if everyone is doing something, then it must be really easy.Of course, most people were writing really horrible Perl because Perl isn’t as easy as they thought it was.

Not sure it’s possible to sum this up in a simple marketing slogan. “Perl is Easy (but not as easy as you think)”.

Marketing Perl

Sometimes people ask me why Perl marketing is so important. This morning I came across an excellent example of the kind of thing that we’re trying to counter.

In the current issue of Linux Format, there’s an article about building a Twitter client in the bash shell. It’s written by Nick Veitch – who seems to dislike Perl a bit. In the article he wants to URL encode a string and can’t find an easy way to do it in bash. He writes:

However, the compromise I’ve found for this isn’t too bad (props to http://stakface.com/nuggets). It uses Perl and, like everything in that language, it looks like you ought to sacrifice a goat or something before you run it.

perl -p -e 's/([^A-Za-z0-9.-~])/sprintf("%%%02X", ord($1))/seg'

It’s not clear to me which part of the Perl make him want to start sacrificing goats. Is it the s/// syntax that Perl borrowed from sed? Perhaps it’s the regular expression syntax that Perl shares with pretty much any language with regex support. Or maybe it’s the sprintf function that Perl borrowed from C and that many other languages (including bash) support with a pretty similar syntax.

Of course I’m not saying that Perl doesn’t have some grungy corners in its syntax. But the three pieces of syntax used in this code fragment look to me like things that should be understood easily by just about anyone with experience of programming in the Unix environment.

And if this code is so hard to understand, why use it? I don’t know what Nick’s programming language of choice is, but couldn’t you do exactly the same thing in Python, Ruby or PHP? I can’t believe that Perl is the only language that is so powerful. And I’d be very surprised if the same code didn’t look very similar in many other languages.

So why the unnecessary little dig at Perl?

Of course, it’s clear that Perl isn’t a language that Nick is particularly familiar with (neither, indeed, is the person who he took the solution from). Anyone who knew Perl would realise that Perl’s standard distribution includes the CGI module which contains an escape function which does exactly what Nick wanted – without exposing the programmer to all of that scary syntax. I would write Nick’s code something like this:

perl -MCGI=escape -e'print escape "@ARGV"'

There are a lot of people out there with really strange ideas about Perl. People who don’t bother to find out the best ways to do things in Perl. And having widely-read Linux magazines printing snide comments about Perl does no-one any good at all.

This is why I think that Perl marketing is important. We need to reach the people outside of the echo chamber and tell them that Perl isn’t the outdated, hard-to-use language that they are being told that it is.

Update: I should have pointed out that I’ve sent an abbreviated version of this to Linux Format. Hopefully it’ll be published in the next issue. And I’m considering proposing a series of articles on Perl to them.

Modern Perl at OpenTech

 

OpenTech is an annual one-day conference in London where geeks get together and share information about cool things they are doing with technology. The emphasis is on projects that improve society in some way so you’ll see a lot of talks about really interesting projects. Usually the talks concentrate more on the user aspects of the projects and it’s rare to hear very much detail about the underlying technologies.

I was therefore slightly surprised to be invited to invited to give a talk about Modern Perl at this year’s conference. But I grasped the opportunity to speak to a room of geeks who might not be keeping up to date with Perl technology.

The slides are now on SlideShare. Bear in mind that I was aiming at a non-Perly crowd and that I only had twenty minutes – so it’s possible that I didn’t have time to cover your favourite Modern Perl project.