The Rising Costs of Aging Perlers: Part 3, The Suggestions

So, what can the Perl community do to avert this decline and potential extinction? Probably a great many things, but here are my three top suggestions:

  1. Make cool shit. Talk about it. Talk about it A LOT. What little positive image Perl retains in these modern times is primarily limited to making sysadmin/dev ops lives easier. While this is a worthy and admirable accomplishment, it’s not going to turn any heads. People will (and do) not want to learn a language with a stodgy reputation. The best way to shed that reputation is to use the language to develop cutting edge tools and services, then to shout it from the mountain tops. DuckDuckGo is written in Perl and is going toe to toe with Google. Lacuna Expanse has shattered the Perl gaming boundaries. Follow their lead. Show people what you think is possible and they’ll start proving you wrong by creating the seemingly impossible.
  2. Modernize our dilapidated online communities. As the enlightened humans we are, we like to say that looks don’t matter. Unfortunately that’s not the way our brains are wired Looks do matter, or at least they do in this case. Take, for instance, the venerable PerlMonks. The site contains a limitless source of knowledge, both historical and contemporary. But its user interface and experience are both stuck in the late 1990’s and have become punchlines for a programming language which is trying to claim relevance in the current world of technology. This perception, unfortunately, is transferred to the Perl language at large. If we want to attract new community members, we need to do it with a modern sensibility, language, and tools. Online services where you can try out Perl programming in your browser. The latest in forum and moderation technologies. An interface which uses current best practices for usability and design.

    While I was doing research for this article, I came across this quote about linguistic cultural extinction which is quite relevant to Perl’s current situation:

    On a larger, less methodical scale, linguists agree that the single most important step towards ensuring a language does not disappear is the fostering of favorable conditions for its speakers to employ the language and to ensure that it is taught to their children. Approaches to Conservation

    Perl, as it currently stands, is not fostering those favorable conditions. It needs to modernize its presentation and approach to make itself more approachable and appealing to a new generation of programmers.

  3. TPF should fund training, outreach and community building to the same level as language development (if not more). According to The Perl Foundation‘s own mission statement, it is “…dedicated to the advancement of the Perl programming language through open discussion, collaboration, design, and code.” At no point does it mention community or training as a part of its raison d’être and I find that to be a grave oversight in desperate need of correction. A language is only advanced so long as it thrives. A language cannot thrive without practitioners and a strong community to support them. TPF is dropping the ball here, allowing the language they’re sworn to advance to founder in a morass of indifference and insignificance. It does not matter how many grants they hand out for language improvements which no one is going to use. As the effective figurehead of the Perl community, I feel only TPF is in a position to make the sort of changes necessary to drag Perl back into relevance and to allow it to grow and thrive, and these changes are not predominantly technical in nature. TPF should take the reins it recently appears so reticent to accept and both guide and grow the community through outreach and grants based upon measurable milestones. TPF: Accept responsibility for increasing the ranks of Perl programmers and the overall perception of our language within the programming community. Advance our language in ways which matter (read: not solely technological) and do it now before there is nothing left to advance.

So, here’s the thing.

You don’t have to agree with much of what I say above. But agreement isn’t necessary in order to think about the issue. And that’s what I urge you to do: start thinking about this as a legitimate issue. Even this cursory look at the current landscape of Perl usage and the Perl community shows that its aging and dwindling numbers are worthy of concern. I repeat: We are becoming the Shakers of the programming world and if we do nothing to change this then we will end up the same way they did.


Postscript…
During the process of writing this article I did a lot of research into cultural extinction. The concepts there are disturbingly applicable to what the Perl community is facing now. To end, I’d like to share a particularly relevant quote from Francis X. Hezel:

The key to cultural survival, then, is not purely conservatism—hanging on tightly to all that we have received in the past—but a genuine sense of dynamism and a readiness to adapt to a changing world. Strategies for economic development that entail change, therefore, may be seen as ways of promoting survival, material and cultural. Some of what we have understood in the past as either-or dichotomies ought to be re-examined in the light of this new model of culture.

The Rising Costs of Aging Perlers: Part 2, The Business

At this point you’re entirely justified in asking, “So what?”

The fact of the matter is, the lack of junior programmers is a very big deal from a business point of view, both to companies which already use Perl and those who might otherwise consider it. This directly and strongly impacts the bottom line of any Perl-using development shop.

According to Payscale.com, in San Francisco the median pay for a junior software developer is $66,000. For a senior software developer it’s $111,000. To be honest, we’re in a boom here right now. It’s my experience as a software development manager that each of these numbers is at least $20-$30K too low, but let’s run with the Payscale numbers. It’s obvious that a senior software developer is going to cost a shop a minimum of nearly $50,000 more than a junior developer.

Now consider the structure and needs of your typical software development department. There are a number of tasks which absolutely require the skills and expertise only a senior developer can bring to bear, but the majority of the work most likely can be performed by more junior developers with appropriate supervision. You do not need every member of your team to be senior and, at an extra $50K a head, you can’t afford to do it anyway. That sort of staff expenditure is an irresponsible business practice. However, as unreasonable as it is to expect a company to pay so much more for experience they don’t need, it’s equally unreasonable to expect a senior developer to accept less pay than (s)he has earned through years of training and experience.

Companies in this position, in order to continue using Perl, will have few options available to them. One of those options is to start training all incoming developers to use the language. While this is possible (undoubtedly some companies already do this), it is itself a very expensive proposition, often costing tens of thousands of dollars in training costs, time and productivity. A number of companies may run the numbers on the investment they’d be required to make in training and decide that it provides a much lower return than undertaking the arduous task of rearchitecting the software to use a language where they are able to hire staff (and at a more reasonable rate of pay).

Alternatively, companies which do not yet use Perl may be turned away from the language for similar reasons. The harsh financial realities of running a business—rather than technological merit—will end up dictating which programming language a company will use for their product. Selecting a language for which you can only hire senior developers is a very bad business practice, which leaves Perl in a poor position from a business point of view.

From where I’m standing, it does not appear as though the Perl community is doing much to correct this issue. As I detailed in my earlier post, in many cases Perl’s new programmer outreach appears fairly crummy if not virtually non-existent. This needs to change before Perl starts to face a cultural extinction. Perl needs to start creating fledgling Perlers to help sustain and grow the language through it’s next twenty-five years. As well, this will add new blood to the community and help diversify the gene pool. The more diverse a community, the better it’s able to adapt to the changing conditions which might otherwise overwhelm it.

A diverse or deep gene pool gives a population a higher chance of surviving an adverse change in conditions. Effects that cause or reward a loss in genetic diversity can increase the chances of extinction of a species. Population bottlenecks can dramatically reduce genetic diversity by severely limiting the number of reproducing individuals and make inbreeding more frequent. Wikipedia page on Extinction

In the final post of this series, I’ll detail some suggestions for avoiding this cultural extinction. Read Part 3.

The Rising Costs of Aging Perlers: Part 1, The Data

Hello, Friendly Perl Community! You may not want to hear this, but you’re not getting any younger. This is having a dramatic effect on the bottom line of companies which do or would use Perl.

A few months ago I started helping a friend recruit Perl developers for the company where he works. Aside from talking to the many people I know in the community I also put out several open calls for developers interested in switching jobs. I’ve now met and spoken with many great people—most of whom I’d never have had the chance to meet otherwise—and I’m very grateful for that opportunity. It’s helped remind me why Perl is my open source community of choice.

However, after only a few weeks I started to notice something odd: I had yet to speak with anyone who wasn’t Senior Developer. The overwhelming majority of persons with whom I spoke had well over ten years of experience with Perl. I believe the lowest number of years of Perl experience I saw was around eight. In my town of San Francisco it’s reasonable to see Senior Developers with five or fewer years of experience with a language. You can quibble with that definition, but there’s no denying that it’s the way we do things here. And since I was recruiting for a San Francisco office, all of these candidates qualified as Senior.

When I recognized that I was only speaking with (or even hearing of) senior developers some gears started turning in my mind. To verify my suspicion that Perl is a language of aging practitioners with few people available to replenish the ranks, I gathered some data…

Exhibits A and B. Since 2009, YAPC::NA and YAPC::EU have asked the following question on their respective post-conference surveys:

How do you rate your Perl knowledge?

  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced

All YAPC survey data is available online. I compiled the data from the past four years of responses to that question. The result was the following graphs. The Y-axis is the number of respondents in that year.

YAPC::EU Perl Experience by Year, 2009-2012
YAPC::NA Perl Experience by Year, 2009-2012

As the definitions of “Beginner,” “Intermediate,” and “Advanced” are left as exercises for the respondent, it’s impossible to make a direct correlation between these results and my soft definition of “senior developer” as one with five or more years of experience. Regardless, it’s very obvious from these graphs that there are remarkably few junior Perl programmers available and that issue is not being resolved as the years pass.

Because the best kind of data is MOAR DATA, I ran a very informal poll on the Linkedin Perl group. The question and results:

How many years have you been programming Perl?

70% of the respondents have more than five years of experience programming Perl. A mere 13% are new to the language. (If you tilt your head to the right you can see a graphic summary of what this might mean for the Perl community.)

Granted, there is no small amount of selection bias going on here. People who attend YAPC or participate in the Linkedin Perl group are more likely to be more experienced and comfortable in the community than more junior developers.

Regardless, after seeing these numbers I’m convinced that the practitioners of Perl are aging and not enough junior developers are being created to sustain the language as a going concern in the development world. What’s worse, Perl does not appear to have any sort of succession plan. It’s turning into the Shakers of the software development world: attempting to rely on conversion for proliferation rather than on reproduction.

In the next post, I’ll tell you why you should care about this. Read Part 2