TL;DR: Attitudes common in the Clojure community are making that community increasingly unappealing to people like me. They may also be leading to a language less appealing to people like me than a Lisp should be.
I think people like me are an important constituency.
The dodgy attitudes come from the Clojure core, especially Rich Hickey himself, I’m sad to say. I wish the Clojure core would be more supportive of programmers not like them, and of those with different goals. Otherwise, I’m afraid Clojure won’t achieve a popularity that justifies the kind of commitment I’ve been making to it. What should I do?
I’ve caused a bit of kerfuffle on Twitter about Clojure and testing. I’ve been somewhat aggressive because I’m trying to suss out how much effort to put into Clojure over, say, the next year.
[Note to the reader: scatter “I think” and “I could be wrong” statements freely throughout the following.]
Here’s the deal.
What’s at issue is a style of working (roughly XPish). After some years of work by many, it’s entirely possible in the Ruby world to work in that style. After doing the whole Agile spokesmodel thing for a decade, that’s all I want: a place where there are enough people with my style that we can (1) find each other to work together, and (2) work together without having to re-justify our style to every damn person we meet. In Ruby, XP style is mainstream enough that we can let the product of our work speak for us. (Hence, my recently co-founded contract software company.)
I think it was at the 2nd RubyConf that Nathaniel Talbott introduced Test::Unit, a Ruby version of jUnit. I can’t be positive, but I’m pretty sure Matz (the author of Ruby) didn’t care all that much about testing or, especially, TDD. Wasn’t his style. Perhaps still isn’t. However: he did not, to my recollection, express any reaction other than his usual “People are doing things with my language! I am happy!” And while Matz gives keynotes about design and such, they are pretty obviously about how he feels about design and about how he approaches it. They are invitations, not instructions.
One of the strengths of Ruby in the early days was this air of invitation. (I don’t really follow that community closely any more.)
Rich Hickey, for all his undoubted brilliance as a language implementor and his fruitful introspection into his own design process, presents a less welcoming demeanor than Matz’s. From what I’ve seen, he is more prone, in his public speaking and writing, to instruction than to invitation.
Which is OK with me, all things being equal. But there’s a problem. Brilliant solo language designers set a tone for the community that gathers around the language, especially in the early days. We’ve seen that with Python and Ruby. (Rails too, which acts as a contrast to the “Ruby Classic” tone.) It’s happening again in Clojure, where I’d say the picture of the ideal developer is someone who, with grim determination, wrestles a hard problem to the ground and beats it into submission with a multi-issue bound copy of The Journal of Functional Programming. I’m all for people who do that! So I don’t have to! But I personally prefer something more akin to the style of Ruby’s _why, who’d sneak up on a problem and tickle it until it was laughing too hard to be a problem any more.
I didn’t always prefer the Ruby style. Just after I started my first post-graduate job, Tony Hoare’s Turing Award lecture came out, containing the famous quote:
I conclude that there are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult.
I positively thrilled to that. That was the man I wanted to be.
As time went on, though, I ran into difficulties. What if you can’t solve the problem with that first method, whether because you’re not smart enough, or the problem domain is inherently messy, or the problem keeps changing on you? What then? Do you just give up? Or do you try to find a third method?
Those difficulties, plus some timely encounters with some strange thinkers, notably Feyerabend and his Against Method, put me on my current career path. Which causes me to say this:
For someone doing core infrastructural design, such as the huge task of tricking the JVM into running a Clojure program speedily, an emphasis on purity and simplicity—one bordering on asceticism—seems to me essential. God speed Rich Hickey for that!
But when a community adopts purity, simplicity, and asceticism as core tenets—ones approaching matters of morality—you can end up with a community that makes things unpleasant for not just the impure and hedonistic, but also for just plain normal people. And they will go elsewhere.
Much as I love Lisp and admire Clojure, if it can’t grab the enthusiasm of, say, the median pretty-good Ruby or Java programmer who has the TDD habit, it’s not economically sensible for a cofounder of a new company to put as much effort into it as I have been putting.
If Clojure turns into a tool for hardcore people to solve hardcore problems, without making concessions for people with softer cores—if it remains a niche language, in other words—I should probably spend more time with Ruby. And I do think, right now, that Clojure is more likely to be a niche language than I thought last year.
So in the last few weeks, I’ve been sending out little probes, mainly to see if anyone with some star power can provisionally buy the story above. If so, I can hope to see an intentional broadening in a direction designed to shackle me and those like me more tightly into the Clojure community—and so help it succeed.
So far, meh.
If I’m sensible, a continuing “meh” response will prompt me to reduce my effort around Clojure—to resist the temptation to make another tutorial, to cut back on new Midje features (but not on fixes and the 1.3 port, I hasten to reassure its users!), and so on. If Clojure then wins big, I can jump back on the bandwagon. I will have lost some early mover advantage, but that doesn’t look to be huge anyway. (Not like it was with Agile, or would have been with Ruby if I hadn’t drifted away before Rails came out.)
I haven’t decided what to do. Reaction to this post might help. Probably the best thing would be for me to be convinced I’m nuts. Hey, it’s happened before!
A postscript on the validity of what I claim
A postscript on worries about the effect of performance on expressiveness