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Software Development Languages

By Colin on 2020-07-29, updated 2020-08-05

Over one's education and career, a software developer learns many languages and their ecosystems.

I recently learned both Golang and Rust, and have spent the past three months writing them nearly full-time. Learning these modern languages and reflecting on ones I've used in the past has alerted me to the difference between a Software Development Language and the usual term we use, Programming Language. This post is the first of a series that describes this difference and analyses a few languages through this lens.

Expanding the Concept of Programming Language

What is a Software Development Language and how is that different from a "Programming Language"?

When talking about a language, we could say that it's fast or slow, concise or verbose, mangled or pretty, beginner-friendly or plagued by a steep learning curve. We could comment about how Language A does for loops this way, Language B does them that way, and Language C doesn't have them at all. But from the perspective of real-world Software Development, these points are nearly irrelevant.

Let's define a few terms to see why.

Definition: Programming

Programming is the manipulation of Ideas, followed by the encoding of that manipulation into a physical form (usually code) to be executed by a Computer.

For some broad definition of Idea and Computer. With this, the following are all programming:

  • Writing a two-line Bash script to rename some files.
  • Writing a Python function to generate a plot for a Data Science class.
  • Editing some CSS to alter your website's layout.
  • Typing an SQL query into a database prompt.
  • Solving a coding challenge.
  • Refactoring a module to use newer idioms, reducing code by half.
  • Writing a patch in C for the Linux Kernel to support a USB device.
  • Writing an algorithm prototype with an associated academic paper.

And so would these be:

  • Writing pseudocode of a sorting algorithm on a final exam.
  • Linking visual logic blocks together to cause a fun game effect.
  • Establishing "forms" with associated validation rules on a Salesforce -based data management system.
  • The main mechanic of the game SpaceChem.
  • Controlling the operation of a loom via punchcards.
  • Taking a walk or a shower to solve coding problems in your mind.

In this sense, the act of programming itself is available to everyone.

Definition: Software Development

On the other hand, we have Software Development:

Software Development is the creation of software to be used over time. It is Programming followed by Testing, Collaborating, Releasing, and Maintenance.

With this, the following are Software Development activities:

  • Accepting a bug ticket at work, finding the problem, and submitting a PR for the solution.
  • Creating and uploading a personal website.
  • Developing and launching a phone app to help level a framed picture.
  • Producing a game for a major gaming console.
  • Evaluating and merging patches to the Linux Kernel.
  • Updating and deploying the assembly code of a 50 year old satellite that has left the solar system.
  • Speaking to other developers at a conference.

All languages can be measured on a scale of how sharp a tool they are for the entire Five Pillared process of Software Development, not just programming. Particularly sharp languages have solid answers to these real concerns:

  • Programming:
    • Do my ideas flow into the editor, or do the language idioms get in my way?
    • Is my day-to-day experience a productive dialogue with the compiler?
    • How many characters must I type to express my intent?
    • Is the language filled with GOTCHAs?
    • How short are compilation / typecheck times?
    • How beautiful is the syntax I look at every day?
  • Testing:
    • How efficiently can I discover if my code is incorrect?
    • Am I protected from future changes breaking old code?
    • Does the language itself provide correctness guarantees that avoid the need for test writing?
    • Are benchmarking and profiling first-class activities?
    • How easy does the language make it to write code that performs poorly?
    • How long is CI turnaround?
  • Collaborating:
    • How easy is it to write code that others won't understand?
    • When I have a question, are there well-trafficked channels to find the answer?
    • Is there a canonical way to write the language, or are there competing paradigms?
    • Can I easily incorporate other people's code into my own?
    • Are there meetups or conferences close to me that are dedicated to the language?
  • Releasing:
    • Is documentation "first class"? Are generated docs well-organized and easy to navigate?
    • Is it obvious how to release a library?
    • Are dependencies a source of strength or liability?
    • Is it straight-forward to produce an optimized release binary?
    • Are strange runtime flags necessary for sane program behaviour?
  • Maintenance:
    • Will code I write today be compilable in a year? In 10 years?
    • Can I refactor with confidence?
    • Should I expect frequent runtime crashes?
    • If I don't update my dependencies and compiler often, how soon will the ecosystem "leave me behind"?
    • Can the language interact with legacy code?

Naturally this list could be longer, but working software developers would likely agree with much of it. To contrast, how many of these points are relevant to students, researchers, and working scientists? This brings us to our main point:

Some languages are better suited for Software Development than others.

Should you write a multi-million line Operating System in Python? You could, but you shouldn't. Python has other strengths.

The same is true for working in research and for learning how to program in the first place. Should you write complex, high-performance physics simulations in Java? You could, but you shouldn't. Java has other strengths. Should you teach someone C++ as their first exposure to programming? You could (and many have been), but you shouldn't. C++ has other strengths.


They say that a good craftsman never blames his tools. This is true, but it's also important to recognize when you're trying to build a skyscraper with a hammer, or a bikeshed with a crane. Sometimes the tools are inappropriate for the task at hand. For Software Development, we should choose a sharp Software Development Language from our toolbox.

All Software Development Languages are Programming Languages, but the reverse is not true. With all this in mind, what sense is there really in debating the syntax of a for loop? Or in writing the 1000th FooLang vs BarLang article? Or ranking the Top 100 Languages?

For me, I'll take a language that lets me create, share my creations, and keep my creations alive. Next week, we'll apply the above philosophies to Rust, and see how it measures as a Software Development Language.

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