Perceptions of Perl – views from the edge

To help research for a talk I’m giving soon I asked the OPEN mailing list:

Please spare a few moments to jot down your thoughts about the Perl language, CPAN, the community. Even if you don’t use it. In fact, especially if you don’t use it. How would you choose a language to develop a new web project? How would Perl rate, and why?

The OPEN mailing list is “is a community-based mailing list for the discussion of general Web, Internet and related technologies” in Ireland. The participants have an eclectic mix of web related jobs and interests. There’s certainly no bias towards Perl.

I’ve tried to distill the key points and group them into topics. In the process I’ve made some slight edits.

Just in case it’s not completely clear, these are not my views, they are a summary of the assorted views of others. I offer them here to give some insight into how Perl is viewed outside it’s core community.

General:

  • Perl is seen as a sys-admin language. Still used for back-end jobs.
  • PHP is easier to deploy at front end stuff.
  • Perl is still more powerful and easier to deploy backend.
  • Too complex compared to PHP. Code overly obtuse.
  • For web development Perl is losing ground to the more mainstream languages such as Java, PHP, .NET etc.
  • Perl is over complex and out of date, a sort of Cobol of the scripting world.
  • Perl has aged well. Its no longer the only choice for tasks but it is still very useful.
  • Perl 6 is killing Perl (slowly). But Perl is still popular, see http://www.tiobe.com/tpci.htm [I plan to do a post about apparent significant errors in the TIOBE results -- Tim]
  • Perl community has a great reputation.
  • If scripting language were spanners:
    • PHP would be plastic spanners (too brittle)
    • Python would be Gold (too soft)
    • Perl is pre 1989 Ironmongery (not the cheap west german crap)
  • I know what type of spanners I want in my toolbox.

Skills Availability:

  • Perl developers are now hard to find and expensive to employ when compared with the general over abundance of say (let’s face it, mediocre) VB.Net developers
  • Whilst some might say that clients are just jumping on the bandwagon by demanding things be built using .Net framework etc. This may be true to an extent, but there is the logic of accessibility, maintainability and affordability being applied here.
  • There’s no point in having something built by an individual or small team, to find that 2-3 years down the line the original team are nowhere to be found and the system requires major re-working/upgrading etc. and there’s only a tiny handful of “experts” available to take over (at somewhat large expense).

CPAN:

  • Perl has some nice features. The best is that when you install a piece of Perl software on Linux, it works. It is very easy to locate and download the modules you need to get it going. Python, in contrast, tends to have modules all over the place.
  • CPAN is a bit of a mixed blessing. Using it tends to fall into sorcerer’s apprentice mode and the associated dependency hell;

Maintenance and Maturing Coding Styles:

  • I found that I couldn’t read scripts six months after writing them. At that stage I switched over to Python.
  • My style in Ruby programming is so different it’s hard to be sure it’s the language (when maintaining or extending Perl and PHP code I now backport the Ruby way of working to those languages where possible) and not the fact that I got the language and the ‘Ruby Way’ simultaneously.
  • I trust the code I write in Perl, PHP and Ruby because it’s not opaque (unlike J2EE for example, which is an appalling hellhole of a world of hurt).
  • My personal reason for choosing Ruby every time is that It Makes Writing Really Good Code Really Good Fun. Or as Why so poignantly put it “You’ll be writing such beautiful code it’ll make you cry”.

Hosting and Delivery:

  • Many cheap hosting packages don’t work well out of the box with perl.
  • I’d love to do all my dev in perl (and still so when other languages let me down), but PHP is so much more entrenched in the web hosting arena and totally painless in most ways, that perl takes longer and is harder to support.
  • I have developed Perl into standalone items using PDK and it runs & runs at clients sites without any hassle.

Frameworks:

  • Use of development frameworks is leveling the playing field between languages so it’s a personal choice and familiarity rather than any language offering that huge advantage.
  • I don’t see Perl as being big in the web-framework world. It is just not on the Radar. PHP, Python and Ruby is all that I see. I am familiar with the Zope stack so I would use that for a new project. It is just too much of a learning curve to switch.
  • Ruby/PHP/Python and a couple of others have market and mindshare; These guys also have really good ‘frameworks’ for the click-and-drool brigade (eg Rails).
  • Perl is not getting nearly as much attention as Ruby and Rails, despite the rapid development of the excellent Catalyst.

Many thanks to those to responded: Diarmaid Mac Aonghusa, Paul Grant, Dave Wilson, Paul Mc Auley, Kevin Gill, Lee Hosty, Tony Byrne, Brian Greene and Fergal J Byrne.

Comparative Language Job Trend Graphs

I researched these comparative job trend graphs for my Keynote at the 2007 London Perl Workshop, and then added a few more for this blog post.

The graphs are from indeed.com, a job data aggregator and search engine. They’re all live, so every time you visit this page they’ll be updated with the current trend data (though it seems the underlying data isn’t updated often). My notes between the graphs relate to how they looked when I wrote this post in February 2008 (and the graphs were all Feb 2005 thru Dec 2008).

First up, all jobs that even mention perl, python or ruby anywhere in the description:

The most amazing thing to me about this graph is that it indicates that 1% of all jobs mention perl. Wow.

(Perhaps the profile of the jobs indeed.com is a little skewed towards technical jobs. If it is then I’m assuming it’s equally skewed for each of the programming languages. Note: An addendum below shows that ruby is getting ~17% boost through false positive matches from other jobs, like Ruby Tuesday restaurants. That applies to the graphs here that don’t qualify the search with an extra term like ‘software engineer’.)

Here’s a slightly more focussed version that compares languages mentioned in jobs for “software engineer” or “software developer” roles:

'software engineer' and 'software developer' roles mentioning perl or python or ruby

A similar pattern. The narrowing of the gap between Perl and the others languages looks like good evidence of Perl’s broad appeal as a general purpose tool beyond the pure “software engineering/development” roles.

I wanted to focus on jobs where developing software using a particular language was the principle focus of the job. So then I looked for “foo developer” jobs:

perl developer vs python developer vs ruby developer

That increases the gap between Perl and the others. Perhaps a reflection of Perl’s maturity – that it’s more entrenched so more likely to be used in the name of the role.

But do people use “foo developer” or “foo programmer” for job titles? Let’s take a look:

So “foo developer” is the most popular, but “foo programmer” is still significant, especially for Perl. (It’s a pity there’s no easy way to combine the pairs of trend lines. That would raise Perl even further.)

To keep us dynamic language folk in our place, it’s worth comparing the trends above with those of more static languages:

same as above but with C, c# and c++

C++ and C# dwarf the dynamic languages. C and cobol are still alive and well, just.

Then, to give the C++ and C# folk some perspective, let’s add Java to the mix:

same as above but with java

C++ and C# may dwarf the dynamic languages, but even they are dwarfed by Java.

Let’s take a slight detour now to look at web related work. (It’s a detour because this post isn’t about web related work, it’s about the jobs market for the three main general purpose dynamic languages. People doing web work can tend to assume that everything is about web work.)

We’ll start by adding in two more specialist languages, PHP and JavaScript:

php and javascript developer

I’m not surprised by the growth of PHP, though I’m sad that so many people are being introduced to ‘programming’ through it. I’m more surprised by the lack of height and growth in JavaScript. I presume that’s because it’s still rare for someone to be primarily a “JavaScript developer”. (That’ll change.) Let’s check that:

perl, python, ruby, php, javascript, web-developer

That’s much closer to what I’d expected. PHP is a popular skill, but is mentioned in less than half the jobs than Perl is. JavaScript, on the other hand, is in great and growing demand.

Let’s look at the “web developer” role specifically and see which of the languages we’re interested in are mentioned most frequently:

I think this graph captures the essence of why people think Perl is stagnant. It’s because Perl hasn’t been growing much in the ‘web developer’ world. People in that world are the ones most likely to be blogging about it and, I’ve noticed, tend to generalize their perceptions.

(If you’re interested in PHP, Java, ASP and JavaScript and look here you’ll see that they all roughly follow the PHP line at about twice the height. JavaScript is at the top with accelerating growth.)

Finally, just to show I’m not completely biased about Perl, here are the relative trends:relative trends

This kind of graph reminds me of small companies that grow by a small absolute amount, say two employees growing to four, and then put out a press release saying they’re the “fastest growing company” in the area, or whatever. Dilbert recognises the issue. The graph looks striking now (Q1 2008) but means little. If it looks much like that in two years time, then it’ll be more impressive.

Similarly, the fact that Perl is still growing its massive installed base over this period is impressive. (Seen most clearly by the second graph.) Perl 5 has been around for 14 years, and Perl itself for 21.

The Perl community hasn’t been great at generating “Buzz” that’s visible outside the community. It’s just quietly getting on with the job. Lots of jobs. That lack of buzz helps create the impression that the Perl community lacks vitality relative to other similar languages. Hopefully this post, and others, go some small way towards correcting that.

p.s. For an alternative, more geographic view, take a look at the Dynamic Language Jobs Map (about).

Addendum:

It turns out that approximately 14% of “ruby” jobs relate to restaurants – mostly the Ruby Tuesday chain. So I investigated how false positives affected the single-keyword searches I’ve used in some of the graphs. (I’m going to assume that “foo developer” is sufficiently immune from false positives.)

I searched for Perl and then added negative keywords (-foo -bar …) until I’d removed almost all of the likely software related jobs. I ended up with this list (which shows that indeed.com don’t use stemming, which is sad and dumb of them):

perl -developer -developers -engineer -software -programmer -programmers -programming -development -java -database -sql -oracle -sybase -scripting -scripter -coder -linux -unix -protocol -C -C++ -javascript -computing

Then I did the same search but with python or ruby instead of perl. Here are the results:

language
 
all
matches
filtered
matches
inappropriate
matches
perl 29987 6 0.02% false
python 7794 20 0.2% false
ruby 4624 794 17% false

Ruby is well below python (and far below perl) in the first graph, yet that includes this 17% boost from inappropriate matches. You have to marvel at Ruby’s ability to gain mind-share, if not market-share.

Chocolate, and more chocolate

For some reason I feel moved to tell you that I have 5 different bars of chocolate in my desk draw:

  • 70% Irish handmade dark couverture by Ó Conaill
  • 66% Caraibe Grand Cru by Valrhona
  • 75% Equador Grandi Cru by Baratti & Milano
  • 68% Dark Fruit and Nut by Divine
  • 70% Irish Exotic Chilli by Wildes

Too much information?

Toastmasters and Cubs – 10 minutes with a tough audience

 I’ve been a member of Shannon Toastmasters for several years now.

Toastmasters is an amazing organization: “220,000 members in 11,300 clubs in 90 countries, offering a proven – and enjoyable! – way to practice and hone communication and leadership skills”. It works, it really does, and I’m especially blessed to have a wonderfully friendly club nearby. I’d recommend it highly to anyone – especially if you need to do any kind of presentations.

So anyway, toastmasters has helped me improve my skills in various ways over these last few years. Tonight I discovered it helped me with the local Cub Scouts.

I’ve just started helping out. Tonight I was asked to teach the Recovery Position to a series of groups of 6 or so lively 8-11 year olds. Thrown in at the deep-end!

I had about 10 minutes with each group to try to get the basics across in a way that would make an impact and stay with them. I got them to rotate being the unconscious person and the helper, and dramatised the point that by doing it the right way even the smallest of them could roll over the heaviest of adults.

It only dawned on me afterwards that it was a little like the Table Topics game we play at the start of every Toastmaster meeting: Convey a message with a clear structure and impact in a short space of time.