Fri 1 Aug 2014
The following letter is not about what "old hands" know and newcomers do not. Instead, it is about lessons that we all need to learn more than once, and remind ourselves of. It is about tendencies that are common, and understandable, and come with the flush of excitement of learning any new thing that we understand is important, and about the difficulty, always, in trying to decide how best to convey that excitement and sense of importance to others, in a way that they will listen. It is written more specifically, but only because I have found that if we don't talk specifics as well as generalities, the generalities make no sense. This holds for algebraic structures, and it holds for other, vaguer concepts no less. It is a letter full of things I want to remember, as well as of advice I want to share. I expect I will want to remind myself of it when I encounter somebody who is wrong on the internet, which, I understand, may occur on rare occasion.
You’ve recently entered the world of strongly typed functional programming, and you’ve decided it is great. You’ve written a program or two or a library or two, and you’re getting the hang of it. You hop on IRC and hear new words and ideas every day. There are always new concepts to learn, new libraries to explore, new ways to refactor your code, new typeclasses to make instances of.
Now, you’re a social person, and you want to go forth and share all the great things you’ve learned. And you have learned enough to distinguish some true statements from some false statements, and you want to go and slay all the false statements in the world.
Is this really what you want to do? Do you want to help people, do you want to teach people new wonderful things? Do you want to share the things that excite you? Or do you want to feel better about yourself, confirm that you are programming better, confirm that you are smarter and know more, reassure yourself that your adherence to a niche language is ok by striking out against the mainstream? Of course, you want to do the former. But a part of you probably secretly wants to do the latter, because in my experience that part is in all of us. It is our ego, and it drives us to great things, but it also can hold us back, make us act like jerks, and, worst of all, stand in the way of communicating with others about what we truly care about.
Haskell wasn’t built on great ideas, although it has those. It was built on a culture of how ideas are treated. It was not built on slaying others’ dragons, but on finding our own way; not tearing down rotten ideas (no matter how rotten) but showing by example how we didn’t need those ideas after all.
In functional programming, our proofs are not by contradiction, but by construction. If you want to teach functional programming, or preach functional programming, or just to even have productive discussions as we all build libraries and projects together, it will serve you well to learn that ethic.
You know better than the next developer, or so you think. This is because of something you have learned. So how do you help them want to learn it too? You do not tell them this is a language for smart people. You do not tell them you are smart because you use this language. You tell them that types are for fallible people, like we all are. They help us reason and catch our mistakes, because while software has grown more complex, we’re still stuck with the same old brains. If they tell you they don’t need types to catch errors, tell them that they must be much smarter than you, because you sure do. But even more, tell them that all the brainpower they use to not need types could turn into even greater, bigger, and more creative ideas if they let the compiler help them.
This is not a language for clever people, although there are clever things that can be done in this language. It is a language for simple things and clever things alike, and sometimes we want to be simple, and sometimes we want to be clever. But we don’t give bonus points for being clever. Sometimes, it’s just fun, like solving a crossword puzzle or playing a tricky Bach prelude, or learning a tango. We want to keep simple things simple so that tricky things are possible.
It is not a language that is “more mathematical” or “for math” or “about math”. Yes, in a deep formal sense, programming is math. But when someone objects to this, this is not because they are a dumb person, a bad person, or a malicious person. They object because they have had a bad notion of math foisted on them. “Math” is the thing that people wield over them to tell them they are not good enough, that they cannot learn things, that they don’t have the mindset for it. That’s a dirty lie. Math is not calculation — that’s what computers are for. Nor is math just abstract symbols. Nor is math a prerequisite for Haskell. If anything, Haskell might be what makes somebody find math interesting at all. Our equation should not be that math is hard, and so programming is hard. Rather, it should be that programming can be fun, and this means that math can be fun too. Some may object that programming is not only math, because it is engineering as well, and creativity, and practical tradeoffs. But, surprisingly, these are also elements of the practice of math, if not the textbooks we are given.
I have known great Haskell programmers, and even great computer scientists who know only a little linear algebra maybe, or never bothered to pick up category theory. You don’t need that stuff to be a great Haskell programmer. It might be one way. The only thing you need category theory for is to take great categorical and mathematical concepts from the world and import them back to programming, and translate them along the way so that others don’t need to make the same journey you did. And you don’t even need to do that, if you have patience, because somebody else will come along and do it for you, eventually.
The most important thing, though not hardest, about teaching and spreading knowledge is to emphasize that this is for everyone. Nobody is too young, too inexperienced, too old, too set in their ways, too excitable, insufficiently mathematical, etc. Believe in everyone, attack nobody, even the trolliest.* Attacking somebody builds a culture of sniping and argumentativeness. It spreads to the second trolliest, and soforth, and then eventually to an innocent bystander who just says the wrong thing to spark bad memories of the last big argument.
The hardest thing, and the second most important, is to put aside your pride. If you want to teach people, you have to empathize with how they think, and also with how they feel. If your primary goal is to spread knowledge, then you must be relentlessly self-critical of anything you do or say that gets in the way of that. And you don’t get to judge that — others do. And you must just believe them. I told you this was hard. So if somebody finds you offputting, that’s your fault. If you say something and somebody is hurt or takes offense, it is not their fault for being upset, or feeling bad. This is not about what is abstractly hurtful in a cosmic sense; it is about the fact that you have failed, concretely, to communicate as you desired. So accept the criticism, apologize for giving offense (not just for having upset someone but also for what you did to hurt them), and attempt to learn why they feel how they feel, for next time.
Note that if you have made somebody feel crummy, they may not be in a mood to explain why or how, because their opinion of you has already plummeted. So don’t declare that they must or should explain themselves to you, although you may politely ask. Remember that knowledge does not stand above human behavior. Often, you don't need to know exactly why a person feels the way they do, only that they do, so you can respect that. If you find yourself demanding explanations, ask yourself, if you knew this thing, would that change your behavior? How? If not, then learn to let it go.
Remember also that they were put off by your actions, not by your existence. It is easy to miss this distinction and react defensively. "Fight-or-flight" stands in the way of clear thinking and your ability to empathize; try taking a breath and maybe a walk until the adrenaline isn't derailing your true intentions.
Will this leave you satisfied? That depends. If your goal is to understand everything and have everybody agree with regards to everything that is in some sense objectively true, it will not. If your goal is to have the widest, nicest, most diverse, and most fun Haskell community possible, and to interact in an atmosphere of mutual respect and consideration, then it is the only thing that will leave you satisfied.
If you make even the most modest (to your mind) mistake, be it in social interaction or technical detail, be quick to apologize and retract, and do so freely. What is there to lose? Only your pride. Who keeps track? Only you. What is there to gain? Integrity, and ultimately that integrity will feel far more fulfilling than the cheap passing thrills of cutting somebody else down or deflecting their concerns.
Sometimes it may be, for whatever reason, that somebody doesn’t want to talk to you, because at some point your conversation turned into an argument. Maybe they did it, maybe you did it, maybe you did it together. It doesn’t matter, learn to walk away. Learn from the experience how to communicate better, how to avoid that pattern, how to always be the more positive, more friendly, more forward-looking. Take satisfaction in the effort in that. Don’t talk about them behind their back, because that will only fuel your own bad impulses. Instead, think about how you can change.
Your self-esteem doesn’t need your help. You may feel you need to prove yourself, but you don't. Other people, in general, have better things to do with their time than judge you, even when you may sometimes feel otherwise. You know you’re talented, that you have learned things, and built things, and that this will be recognized in time. Nobody else wants to hear it from you, and the more they hear it, the less they will believe it, and the more it will distract from what you really want, which is not to feed your ego, not to be great, but to accomplish something great, or even just to find others to share something great with. In fact, if anyone's self-esteem should be cared for, it is that of the people you are talking to. The more confident they are in their capacity and their worth, the more willing they will be to learn new things, and to acknowledge that their knowledge, like all of ours, is limited and partial. You must believe in yourself to be willing to learn new things, and if you want to cultivate more learners, you must cultivate that self-belief in others.
Knowledge is not imposing. Knowledge is fun. Anyone, given time and inclination, can acquire it. Don’t only lecture, but continue to learn, because there is always much more than you know. (And if there wasn’t, wow, that would be depressing, because what would there be to learn next?) Learn to value all opinions, because they all come from experiences, and all those experiences have something to teach us. Dynamic typing advocates have brought us great leaps in JIT techniques. If you’re interested in certain numerical optimizations, you need to turn to work pioneered in C++ or Fortran. Like you, I would rather write in Haskell. But it is not just the tools that matter but the ideas, and you will find they come from everywhere.
In fact, we have so much to learn that we direct our learning by setting up barriers — declaring certain tools, fields, languages, or communities not worth our time. This isn’t because they have nothing to offer, but it is a crutch for us to shortcut evaluating too many options all at once. It is fine, and in fact necessary, to narrow the scope of your knowledge to increase its depth. But be glad that others are charting other paths! Who knows what they will bring back from those explorations.
If somebody is chatting about programming on the internet, they’re already ahead of the pack, already interested in craft and knowledge. You may not share their opinions, but you have things to learn from one another, always. Maybe the time and place aren’t right to share ideas and go over disputes. That’s ok. There will be another time and place, or maybe there won’t be. There is a big internet full of people, and you don’t need to be everybody’s friend or everybody’s mentor. You should just avoid being anybody’s enemy, because your time and theirs is too precious to waste it on hard feelings instead of learning new cool stuff.
This advice is not a one-time proposition. Every time we learn something new and want to share it, we face these issues all over again -- the desire to proclaim, to overturn received wisdom all at once -- and the worse the received wisdom, the more vehemently we want to strike out. But if we are generous listeners and attentive teachers, we not only teach better and spread more knowledge, but also learn more, and enjoy ourselves more in the process. To paraphrase Rilke’s “Letter to a Young Poet”: Knowledge is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other.
Thanks to the various folks in and around the Haskell world who have helped me refine this article. I don't name you only because I don't want to imply your endorsement, or give what is still, at base, a very personal take, any particular sort of imprimatur of a broader group of people, all of whom I suspect will disagree among themselves and with me about various specifics.
*: It has been pointed out to me that this advice is not universal. Clearly there are some things that deserve more pointed responses. Bigotry, outright harassment and poisonous behavior, etc. So please read this paragraph only as it applies to talking about technical issues, not as regards to many other things, where there are people better equipped than me to give advice.