Several years ago I knew a programmer, we’ll call him Joe, who fancied himself to be a great developer. He was a senior developer at “Big Co.”, who received a large enough pay check to just as easily compensate a few junior developers.
The guy had Microsoft certifications, as expected of one in his position, and he appeared to know Visual Studio inside and out, just as you’d imagine.
What was surprising for me at the time, was that as I got to know Joe better, I slowly started to realize that the guy was absolutely clueless about programming beyond the scope of the Microsoft bubble.
He had never used Linux in his life, nor was he interested in learning about it. He wasn’t aware of tools like CVS or SVN. He didn’t seem familiar with the ideas behind unit testing or Agile methodologies; words like “refactoring” were outside of Joe’s vocabulary.
How about other programming languages or paradigms, like functional programming? Nope, nothing there either. He knew Visual Basic 6 and VB.NET, C# (the first release at the time) and a bit of C++. That’s it. And he was proud of it. As I enquired further in an attempt to figure out what he was all about, he didn’t mind admitting to a complete ignorance of what wasn’t printed on Microsoft paper.
What’s interesting is that, despite his cluelessness – due to a strict adherence to the Microsoft view of the programming world – and perhaps a lack of intellectual curiosity, the guy did manage to be somewhat adequate at his job. Not spectacular by any stretch of the imagination, but good enough to keep his well paid job.
Joe simply didn’t care about tools and techniques that fell outside of the narrow, yet mainstream, beaten Microsoft path.
Over the years I’ve met countless Joes. In fact, if I were to generalize and characterize many Microsoft developers in the early 2000s, Joe would come to mind like an unpleasant stereotype.
I tell this story not to criticize Joe or to claim that Microsoft developers suck. On the contrary, my argument is that Microsoft will be a key factor in terms of enabling functional programming to become mainstream. In fact, what Microsoft is doing is introducing .NET developers to functional programming, one piece at a time.
Just a few days ago I was reading the blog of a guy who seemed happy to discover a cool “new” function called Zip in LINQ (hey Haskell programmer over there, stop laughing, you are disrupting my article). These days following blogs by Microsofties is in fact like witnessing some sort of Renaissance, with plenty of talk about exciting features that are clearly borrowed from the functional programming community.
The evolution of C# and Visual Basic, LINQ, and more recently the inclusion of F# as a fully supported language within the .NET Framework 4.0, all indicate Microsoft’s new outlook towards functional programming. F# in particular is essentially OCaml for .NET, and has been received with open arms by the Microsoft community (as far as I can tell).
There are very few books by mainstream publishers on OCaml. On the other hand, F# already has a rich ecosystem of printed books that have been published by O’Reilly, Apress, Wrox, Manning, and likely in the near future Microsoft itself. On top of that there are titles devoted to LINQ and countless books on the recent, more functional oriented, C# and VB.
I’m not measuring the popularity of programming languages by the availability of books alone, but it’s clear to me that there are millions of Joes out there who are ready to learn these new concepts that are now being put out and promoted by Microsoft. It doesn’t matter that they’re not new or that they’re borrowed from other programming languages like Ruby, Python, LISP, ML, Haskell, etcetera.
The end result of Microsoft’s new approach is that now Joes everywhere are getting exposed to functional programming (masses of people who would otherwise be virtually shielded from the rest of the programming world).
Microsoft may no longer be the influential powerhouse it once was, but I think it is fair to acknowledge the impact it’s currently having on making functional programming, or at least some degree of it, more mainstream.
Update: Initially I used the name “Dick” (short for Richard) to identify the programmer I talked about in this story. It was meant to be a humorous double entendre, but turned out to somewhat distract certain readers from the key points that this article was actually about. As well it seems that some people felt I was coming across as being strongly against Microsoft developers (which I’m not in the least). As a result, some readers ended up being offended by this post, which was never my intention. I don’t love political correctness, but I feel that replacing the name “Dick” with “Joe” instead ends up detracting less from the heart of the article.
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Antonio Cangiano is a Software Developer and Technical Evangelist at IBM. He authored 'Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers' by Wrox (2009) and 'Technical Blogging' by The Pragmatic Bookshelf (2012). He is also the Marketing Lead for Cognitive Class, an IBM educational initiative which he helped grow from zero to 1 Million students. You can follow him on Twitter.