It's the programming environment, not the programming language

12 August 2020
12 Aug 2020
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

It’s common to talk about the way we build software in terms of the individual tools we compose together, like command-line utilities and deployment pipelines and containers and services, and most obviously, programming languages. Programming languages seem to get the highest level of scrutiny out of everything that comprises the way we write software. And in the last decade, I think we’ve seen a healthy rejuvenation of innovation in programming languages, driven by languages like Rust, Go, OCaml, Zig, and Swift that bring new ideas to the industrial programming world in practical packages.

But while programming languages are academically interesting, I think we more desperately need innovation in programming environments.

The programming environment isn’t a single component of our workflow, but the total sum enabled by the tools working together harmoniously. The environment contains the programming language, but also includes the debugging experience, dependency management, how we communicate with other developers (both within source code and without), how we trace and observe code in production, and everything else in the process of designing APIs to recovering from failure.

The story of programming language evolution is also a story of rising ideas in what capabilities good programming environments should grant developers. Many languages came to popularity not necessarily based on their merits as great languages, but because they were paired with some new and powerful capability to understand software and write better implementations of it.

C brought practical portability to (what was at the time) high level programs. C literally elevated the programming environment out of processor-specific assembly code into a common vernacular. The legacy is so strong that most languages we use in production today are either direct descendants of C, or inherit much of their syntax, like curly brace-delineated blocks and structures, semicolon statement-terminators, and parenthesized function calls.

JavaScript is popular outside of the browser almost entirely on the merit of its ecosystem, its tooling, and the trivial debugging experience enabled by the repl. JavaScript’s programming environment is entirely interactive, visual, and real-time, without the need for clunky debugging apparatuses. The impact of that interactivity is obvious in the fact that many of my developer friends started programming on the Web, explicitly because it was the easiest way to write programs that produced output we could see and share.

One of Go’s claims to fame and primary design goals is compilation speed. Compared to its predecessor C++, Go compiles fast. And when you make something fast, people start to use it differently.

Erlang, with its advanced, concurrent, message-passing runtime, offers a better way to build high availability, highly reliable systems. It was born in the telecom industry, but has found home in many other critical services industries.

Thoughtfully crafted programming environments are the hidden treasures of the software industry. When we choose a language because of the “tooling” or because of the “IDE experience” or because of “the workflow,” what we are really doing is making a judgement about the programming environment we want to live in and grow around our work.

Between investments being made into new languages and the community’s willingness to experiment, there’s a lot of creative energy being poured into inventing better languages. I think it would serve us well if we invested just as deeply into rethinking the context in which we write those programs. We should be asking questions like:

There are some people trying to create better programming environments. Repl.it brings general purpose development to the browser. Experiments like Light Table more closely integrate source code with its output. Jupyter notebooks are a unique way of writing and sharing code that focus on the process of iteration.

But these are also workflows and tools built around languages that were never designed for such interactive experiences. I think if we build a culture of thinking about programming environments as a place ripe for creative innovation, we’ll see a new class of software development tools emerge that make the most of today’s machines and networks and allow us to write new kinds of software we couldn’t before.


If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, On leading change in the tech industry.

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