Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lessons from the White-bearded Professor

The first part of my Introduction to Haskell series came out on today. As always, there was a lot of material I wanted to mention that didn't fit. This first part is an exploration of why haskell deserves more widespread attention. (The next two parts cover functions and monads.)

One topic I wanted to cover dates back to when I was an undergrad. One of my professors, Jim Maginnis, was something of a village elder in computing. He wasn't one of the pioneers in computing that won a Turing Award, or wrote prolifically about his favorite pet trends in computing, or a discoverer of anything fundamental.

This white-bearded, gentle professor was happy teaching decades' worth of students the skills they needed to go out in the world and solve real problems. He felt great joy in both the topics and the students he taught, and that feeling was heartfelt and infectious.

One of the stories Prof. Maginnis told dates back to when he consulted with big businesses as they started computerizing their operations in the 50s, 60s and 70s. He began by recommending every project start by hiring a mathematician for a week or two to study the problem. (Heck, hire two grad students -- they're cheaper!) His point was that if a mathematician could find an interesting property or algorithm, then it would be money well spent, and drastically reduce the time/money/effort needed to develop a system. If they didn't find anything, well, it was only a week or two, and mathematicians are cheap, anyway.

That always struck me as sound advice. Certainly more practical in the early days of computing when everything was new. Today, most projects feel a lot more mundane and predictable, and maybe it isn't as necessary.

But there's always room for good research and deep thought. That's the kind of thinking that gave us relational database engines, regular expressions, automatic garbage collection and compiler generators.

I keep thinking about this anecdote when I describe Haskell to someone for the first time. Instead of taking two grad students for two weeks, get a few dozen of PhDs around the world focused on a problem for a couple of decades. Haskell is one of the things you might end up with. So are Unix, Erlang and Plan9, for that matter.

I wonder what Prof. Maginnis would think of the world of computing if he were alive today. I can't say for sure, but more than a few brilliant computer scientists have been working for more than a few weeks on solving some really hard problems. And I think he would be very happy with the results.

No comments: