treasure hunting

Working with programming languages is fun stuff. If you are a programmer then you probably only think about your language as much as you need to to get the job done. In fact you have to really, if you spent all day thinking about how the compiler is going to allocate this variable off the stack or this one off the heap or how its going to write out the virtual lookup tables, you could never get anything accomplished.

It’s a shame though because our programming languages are some of the most interesting and complex software we interact with. If you are willing to look around you can find some real treasures out there, and even if you never code anything of importance in these new found treasures, the experience will pay dividends elsewhere.

I’d like to take you on a tour of the treasures I’ve found in my travels through the world we call programming, I’ll split it into four easy to consume chunks.

The Past

The history of our field is short, still short enough that you can probably come to know most if not all of it. This is one of the interesting things about Computer Science, its a field that, in it’s modern form, is about 60 years old. The amazing thing about all this is that there are some gems from the past, truly ground breaking work that we still use today.

  • Lisp
    As you may well be aware I’ve recently fallen in love with lisp, I’m starting to think about her all the time, and you can too. The amazing thing that, to this moment, knocks my socks off, is that Lisp was originally conceived in 1958 and has all kinds of concepts that you wouldn’t expect from a language in it’s 50s. Closures, homoiconic code, anonymous functions, object oriented programming, and a web framework. There is a lot more to this language, and it is definitely worth your time, go read up.
  • Smalltalk
    This one comes from the 1970′s from the famous Xerox PARC. Smalltalk was way ahead of its time with a fully integrated development environment, a fully functional GUI, no files (this sounds bad at first, but its freeing not having to worry about where your source lives), everything is a file, and much more. Smalltalk’s influence is far reaching even to this day, Objective-C borrows heavily from it, and the influential Gang of Four book offers source in C++ and Smalltalk.
  • C
    Hard to believe that this staple of computer programming was invented in 1972. Without C, Unix would not exist. C is still crazy fast, basically human readable assembly, and still widely used. The backbone and infrastructure of most of our technology exists because of C. Have a scripting language, need a way to shut people up who are saying it’s too slow, allow them to call C modules, done. C is definitely worth knowing, you can access a giant pile of source code, and get as close to the machine as possible without busting out the x86 Assembly Guide.

The Present

  • Ruby
    This is the current hotness, although its hotness may be waning somewhat. Today ruby is the top language on github and there is a new interesting project written in ruby everyday. Ruby on Rails created the rockstar ruby programmer, and revolutionized data backed web development. Ruby is going to be around for a while, and because of REPL its easy to get started.
  • JVM Languages
    Java may be out, but the virtual maching that runs the language has never been more popular. Clojure (a JVM Lisp, which will probably get its own article soon) and Scala are up and coming. The ubiquity of the JVM means that you can run this code on almost any machine, and the languages are squeezing speed and performance out of the JVM that would have been unheard of a few years ago. These languages can also leverage the huge pile of Java Libraries out in the wild, so the first major hurdle to a new language (what can this thing actually do and are there any tools for it), is easily leapt.
  • DSLs
    Domain Specific Languages are starting to come into their own. Some of this popularity is owed to the rise of ruby which makes writing a new DSL somewhat trivial. Sass, Haml, and many others DSLs are beginning to find more and more adoption within their domain.

The Future

  • Functional Programming
    Erlang, Haskell, OCaml, etc. are beginning to see an upswing in interest. The rise of multi-processor cores and the inherent complexity of mutli-threaded programming in imperative programming makes these languages a tantalizing option. Erlang can support millions of threads with simple, easy to understand code. CouchDB will be the proving ground for Erlang’s efficacy.
  • JavaScript
    As I wrote in the future: javascript
    When it get’s down to it, JavaScript is a great language. It has a ton of exposure, and a huge amount of developer mindshare. JavaScript isn’t going away anytime soon, and considering how hard it is to get browser vendor’s to agree, isn’t getting replaced anytime soon. JavaScript will become more and more prevalent both on the server and on the desktop. I welcome our new prototype based overlord, and so should you.

    So far nothing has changed.

  • Anything
    That is one of the most exciting things about this field, it could be anything. Before Ruby on Rails, the ruby language was a small odd scripting language that few outside of Japan had heard about. With the success of RoR ruby (which is an acceptable lisp) use has exploded and they have gained massive developer mindshare. Tomorrow a new technology could set the world ablaze, and the best part is that we have a chance to shape that future. This is an industry in which a man with a great idea can truly change the face of the development landscape.

These are just some of the treasures I have discovered by opening my eyes and looking around. There are plenty more gems that I have found that didn’t make it into this post, but only because these one’s were on the top of my brain. If you encounter a new language, take an hour or so to run through a tutorial, it could be worth it, it might not. You may find yourself falling in love, or maybe you missed a few episodes of the Simpsons. At the end of the day though, you will be glad that you took the time to learn something new, when you see glimmers of it in something old, and your knowledge of share-nothing concurrency saves the day on your next project.

This is a dynamic wonderful field, go play!


  1. Frist!

    But seriously, good article. I read words, I looked at colors, and I clicked on links that were HYPER!

  2. Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

Leave a comment