Improving Perl’s New Programmer Outreach
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much demand for programmers or programming training. In an economy that’s still recovering from the recession, the remarkably low unemployment rate among programmers plus the relatively high rate of pay is drawing ever more people to the industry.
You hear it over and over again: “I want to learn to program but need help to start.” If you search on the web you can find an abundance of “learn to program” opportunities. Most of the offline/meatspace ones use Java, Ruby or Python as the language of choice. I found none that use Perl, which I see as an opportunity the Perl community should pursue.
The availability of more beginning programming training provided in Perl would be beneficial both to the trainees and to the Perl language and community. As languages go, Perl quite easy to learn (or at least no harder than the popular alternatives). The basic programming concepts are fairly straightforward in syntax, sigils can help a neophyte to keep her data structures straight, and CPAN can enable a beginner to produce remarkably functional code in a limited amount of time. This leads to higher student confidence, since (as we’ve all experienced), creating something that works makes you feel good and want to keep learning more.
Perl, for its part, could benefit by using this training as positive propaganda to help dispel the negative brand image it’s developed and been unable to shake for all these years. Pundits and wags on Stack Overflow, reddit and elsewhere enjoy repeating the chestnuts that Perl is dead or is good only for scripting and parsing text, not for “web scale” projects. An influx of new programmers—trained on Perl and in the best practices recommended and used by modern Perl developers—would help to dispel these misconceptions, even if afterward they went on to use other languages.
As an example of an organization I think really does training right, I direct you to the San Francisco Ruby community. SF Ruby puts on a training session at least once a month. At least one of these, admirably, is focused on teaching women to program. In addition to training sessions, SF Ruby also organizes several hack nights each month, providing ample opportunities for newbies to mingle with more experienced programmers and get personalized assistance.
Now, in comparison, I’m going to pick on my local Perl Mongers group. SF.pm. Before I start, please be clear that I use SF.pm here only because it’s convenient and—as you’ll see in a moment—provides a dramatic comparison. The SF Perl Mongers are a great group of people. This is not intended as a slight against them or the organization. I simply wish to show that the Perl community could increase its outreach to new programmers.
I’ve compiled data on the number of training and hacking sessions organized by SF Ruby and SF.pm in 2012. All data is drawn from the Meetup calendars for each organization. A ‘training’ event is defined as anything focused on helping people learn the language and includes beginners’ hack nights, study groups, API office hours and more formal training sessions. A ‘hacking’ event, simply enough, is anything with the word ‘hack’ in the title.
|Month||SF Ruby||SF Perl Mongers|
The numbers, as you can see, are staggeringly different. That said, there is also a huge difference in the size of each of these communities on Meetup.com. SF Perl Mongers has a membership of 380 people. SF Ruby has 5588. This naturally affords SF Ruby more resources to provide these events but does not, I believe, excuse SF.pm for providing almost none.
SF Ruby deserves everyone’s attention and commendation for all of their work in training and outreach. It’s a model which Perl should look to emulate. While the resources of my local Perl community may not allow it to scale to the level of the 44 training and 66 hacking events put on by SF Ruby in the last year (nor do I think they should attempt to do so), I would hope those resources could allow for at least one training session every month or so and a newbie-friendly hack session every few weeks[*].
If Perl wants to show people that it’s alive and well it needs to be more active in public ways like this. Outreach to help introduce novices (especially minorities) to programming would go a long way toward dispelling the out-of-date image the tech community has of the Perl language.