The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 01 Feb 2014

My current employer uses an online quiz to pre-screen applicants for open positions. The first question on the quiz is a triviality, just to let the candidate get familiar with the submission and testing system. The question is to write a program that copies standard input to standard output. Candidates are allowed to answer the questions using whatever language they prefer.

Sometimes we get candidates who get a zero score on the test. When I see the report that they failed to answer even the trivial question, my first thought is that this should not reflect badly on the candidate. Clearly, the testing system itself is so hard to use that the candidate was unable to submit even a trivial program, and this is a failure of the testing system and not the candidate.

But it has happened more than once that when I look at the candidate's incomplete submissions I see that the problem, at least this time, is not necessarily in the testing system. There is another possible problem that had not even occurred to me. The candidate failed the trivial question because they tried to write the answer in Java.

I am reminded of Dijkstra's remark that the teaching of BASIC should be rated as a criminal offense. Seeing the hapless candidate get bowled over by a question that should be a mere formality makes me wonder if the same might be said of Java.

I'm not sure. It's possible that this is still a failure of the quiz. It's possible that the Java programmers have valuable skills that we could use, despite their inability to produce even a trivial working program in a short amount of time. I could be persuaded, but right now I have a doubtful feeling.

When you learn Perl, Python, Ruby, or Javascript, one of the things you learn is a body of technique for solving problems using hashes, which are an integral part of the language. When you learn Haskell, you similarly learn a body of technique for solving problems with lazy lists and monads. These kinds of powerful general-purpose tools are at the forefront of the language.

But when you learn Java, there aren't any powerful language features you can use to solve many problems. Instead, you spend your time learning a body of technique for solving problems in the language. Java has hashes, but if you are aware of them at all, they are just another piece of the immense Collections library, lost among the many other sorts of collections, and you have no particular reason to know about them or think about them. A good course of Java instruction might emphasize the more useful parts of the Collections, but since they're just another part of the library it may not be obvious that hashes are any more or less useful than, say, AbstractAction or zipOutputStream.

### I really like Java

I am glad to have had the experience of programming in Java. I liked programming in Java mainly because I found it very relaxing. With a bad language, like say Fortran or csh, you struggle to do anything at all, and the language fights with you every step of the way forward. With a good language there is a different kind of struggle, to take advantage of the language's strengths, to get the maximum amount of functionality, and to achieve the clearest possible expression.

Java is neither a good nor a bad language. It is a mediocre language, and there is no struggle. In Haskell or even in Perl you are always worrying about whether you are doing something in the cleanest and the best way. In Java, you can forget about doing it in the cleanest or the best way, because that is impossible. Whatever you do, however hard you try, the code will come out mediocre, verbose, redundant, and bloated, and the only thing you can do is relax and keep turning the crank until the necessary amount of code has come out of the spout. If it takes ten times as much code as it would to program in Haskell, that is all right, because the IDE will generate half of it for you, and you are still being paid to write the other half.

So you turn the crank, draw your paycheck, and you don't have to worry about the fact that it takes at least twice as long and the design is awful. You can't solve any really hard design problems, but there is a book you can use to solve some of the medium-hard ones, and solving those involves cranking out a lot more Java code, for which you will also be paid. You are a coder, your job is to write code, and you write a lot of code, so you are doing your job and everyone is happy.

You will not produce anything really brilliant, but you will probably not produce anything too terrible either. The project might fail, but if it does you can probably put the blame somewhere else. After all, you produced 576 classes that contain 10,000 lines of Java code, all of it seemingly essential, so you were doing your job. And nobody can glare at you and demand to know why you used 576 classes when you should have used 50, because in Java doing it with only 50 classes is probably impossible.

(Different languages have different failure modes. With Perl, the project might fail because you designed and implemented a pile of shit, but there is a clever workaround for any problem, so you might be able to keep it going long enough to hand it off to someone else, and then when it fails it will be their fault, not yours. With Haskell someone probably should have been fired in the first month for choosing to do it in Haskell.)

So yes, I enjoyed programming in Java, and being relieved of the responsibility for producing a quality product. It was pleasant to not have to worry about whether I was doing a good job, or whether I might be writing something hard to understand or to maintain. The code was ridiculously verbose, of course, but that was not my fault. It was all out of my hands.

So I like Java. But it is not a language I would choose for answering test questions, unless maybe the grade was proportional to the number of lines of code written. On the test, you need to finish quickly, so you need to optimize for brevity and expressiveness. Java is many things, but it is neither brief nor expressive.

When I see that some hapless job candidate struggled for 15 minutes and 14 seconds to write a Java program for copying standard input to standard output, and finally gave up, without even getting to the real questions, it makes me sad that their education, which was probably expensive, has not equipped them with with better tools or to do something other than grind out Java code.