The personal economics of programming languages

Recently, one of my students asked a good question about what programming languages I would recommend learning. His ideal language would be “syntactically ugly, but giving insights that are universal to programming”. My first reaction was to answer that he has just described Perl, but that was too easy of an answer. So I tried to define the basics about programming languages, starting with the personal economics.

Economics of programming languages

An organization that wants to produce a piece of software needs to answer a lot of questions like “what programming language will be best suited for the task?”. Often, these questions get diluted and rather sound like “what programming language should we stipulate for all our projects, now and forever?”. That’s when politics and economics overlap and intermingle. We can leave this problem for the organizations to solve themselves. But if we scale the question down to an individual programmer – you, what influences are there to find an answer to the question “what programming languages should I learn?”.

I try to answer with the concept of utility: Learn those languages that, over a reasonable time, yield the most “utility”. There are at least two types of utility in our profession: money and joy. You can learn a programming language because your job requires it (money) or because you are curious and/or dig its particularities (joy). Most of the time, a specific programming language contains a mixture of both utilities for you. How you rate those utilities is up to you and probably varies from situation to situation. If you start a private fun project, picking the boring mainstream language from work might get things get done faster, but when would you want the fun to be over sooner?

Let me give two extreme examples for this concept:

  • If you start to learn COBOL now, chances are high that you will achieve two things: You will be disgusted by the language and the existing codebase, but delighted by the salary and job security. COBOL is a high money-utility programming language. It ranks low in any survey or statistics about programming languages, but is widely used in big business today and tomorrow. You might refer to for more information.
  • If you start to learn Esterel now, you might experience two things over time: an epiphany about how flawed our concept of time is in most programming languages and an existential crisis because your brain isn’t capable to wrap itself around most sourcecode. Whatever comes first will define your learning success. There are virtually no jobs that require Esterel (even if some might benefit from it) and you can only program and build so many bicycle computers in your spare time (this is a typical introduction project to Esterel). Esterel is a pure joy-utility programming language. You can claim to be proficient in synchronous programming afterwards, but nobody will know what that even is.

A third type of utility

But I think that there might be a third type of utility for personal learning choices based on economics: The stirrup iron utility. Knowledge of some programming languages isn’t useful from a money-driven viewpoint and may lack enjoyability, but it serves as a door-opener to more enjoyable or sellable languages. It serves as an interim utility because it doesn’t have value in itself, but serves as a multiplier for either the money or joy utility. To rate the value of this utility to your career, you need to be clear about your career goals, especially your anticipated skill portfolio.

Skill portfolio shapes

Modern recruitment differentiates between several skill portfolio shapes, most noteably the “I” and “T” shape:

  • Programmers with “I”-shaped skill portfolios are experts in one specific field of programming. They might, for example, be the best C# programmer you’ve ever met. But they flop around like a fish out of water once they need to use another programming language. They will choose their familiar tools for every problem that needs to be solved and will solve it fast if possible or
  • Programmers with “T”-shaped skill portfolios have knowledge across all fields of programming, albeit limited, and drilled down into one field specifically. Why they chose to master their field can mostly be explained with the money or joy utility. They probably gained their broad knowledge base by using stirrup irons.

If you happen to know what’s expected from you until your retirement (let’s say you chose to program in COBOL), the “I”-shape is a viable and efficient strategy to manage your skill portfolio. There is nothing wrong with this approach (as long as it works).

If you have a hunch that you don’t have the capability to invest in broad knowledge, the “I”-shaped skill portfolio is your logical choice. It takes a lot to be able to come to a self-assessment that shows your limitations. It’s a good thing to know your limits and build a career within them. A lot of programmers don’t know their limits and burn out, because not meeting the requirements produce a lot of stress (on both sides). Better be yourself than over-promise and under-deliver constantly.

The “T”-shape means that you need to invest your time wisely. And we are not talking “work time” only, but “life time”, because you’ll probably need to spend your spare time working on your portfolio, too. Becoming a “jack of all trades” programmer is an endeavour of at least ten years without any possibility to shortcut. You need to select your jobs in accordance to your learning strategy and always be receptive to opportunities. You need to improve your learning abilities. You need to do so much at once that I suggest you start by watching Cory House’s talk about “Becoming an Outlier”. He’s spot on with so many things.

Stirrup iron programming languages

There are some programming languages that can be seen as the archetypes of a whole class of languages. Most knowledge of these archetypes can be directly applied or transfered to each language in the class. It’s the language’s concepts that are the real benefit. If you understand the synchronous programming aspect in Esterel, you’ll recognize it straight away in languages like LabView or SIGNAL. It may even just be a part of the other language (like in many multi-paradigm programming languages), but it will be familiar to you.

So what are some stirrup iron languages?

That’s a tough question and I want to place it out there. Can you drop a comment and name the programming language that had the most peculiar influence on your knowledge? I would like to refer to the book Seven Languages In Seven Weeks from the Pragmatic Bookshelf. It covers Ruby, Io, Prolog, Scala, Erlang, Clojure and Haskell. Do you agree with that selection? I would like to hear from you.

There are some ideas about this topic already: The talk “The Future of Programming” from Bret Victor (if you don’t know this guy already, please watch his legendary “Inventing on Principle” too). Richard Astbury presents three “new” hot programming languages (with matching outfits) in his talk “The State of the Art”. And Robert C. Martin is sure to have found “The Last Programming Language”.

One thing is sure: We should train the next generations of programmers in those stirrup iron languages, so they can quickly grasp the language flavour of the year. This is mostly done already, of course, but the students inevitably complain about the “weird” choices. So we need to explain upfront the economics of programming languages.

And, in a lighter tone at the end, there is always the ongoing competition for the worst programming language ever.


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