Monday Morning Haskell explores a variety of topics in the Haskell programming language, from the very basics to the best tools for use in a production environment. The author, James Bowen, is a software engineer in San Francisco.

Interview with Doug Beardsley!

This week on Monday Morning Haskell, we have an exciting change of pace! I recently met with Doug Beardsley, a Haskell engineer at Takt. He was kind enough to agree to an interview with me. We discussed a number of topics, including learning Haskell, his work at Takt, and his view of the Haskell community as a whole.

You can find out more about him and his projects on his Github page. One of the more interesting things I saw there was his monad challenges repository. If you’ve read through the Monday Morning Haskell monad series and want some more hands on experience, I encourage you to try these challenges!

Perhaps the most striking response I heard from Doug was his answer about how welcoming and helpful the Haskell community is. Haskellers are always eager to answer newcomers’ questions! So if you haven’t written any Haskell yet, I encourage you to look through our Getting Started Checklist and take the first steps on your Haskell journey!

Without further ado, let’s get on to the interview!

Interview

Let’s start with some information about yourself. How long have been a software engineer? How long have you been using Haskell?

I started programming back in 1990ish, and I was pretty young. It wasn’t really software engineering level programming back then obviously, but I just immediately fell in love with it. I then learned C and programmed with it all through high school. And so I knew I wanted to be a computer science major in college. I went through that, graduated, started programming in the early 2000’s in industry, first in the defense industry for five/six years. Then I got a job programming Haskell. I moved to New York for that, and I’ve been doing Haskell pretty much full time ever since.

How long ago was that?

I started programming in Haskell professionally in 2010. I didn’t jump straight into Haskell professionally from zero. I think I started learning Haskell around 2006, maybe 2007.

So what Haskell concept was the hardest for you to learn?

Wow that’s a good question. I feel like with everything, there’s a spectrum. As you evolve, new things become harder. I definitely had a lot of trouble with monads early on. I feel like you don’t learn them at any one time. You just use them enough, and then you gradually build up a working knowledge of the tools and the APIs that are available around Control.Monad. I read through that so many times. If, like me, you don’t have a photographic memory, you just gotta keep going back through refreshing your memory, and eventually the patterns just kind of sink in.

I don’t know if I would say that was the hardest concept though. I feel like I can still use a much better understanding of say, profunctors, or some of the more obscure things that are going on in the lens package. But I don’t know. I kinda don’t like questions like “What is the superlative of something”, because it depends on the day really.

That makes sense. What advice would you have for someone who has tried to learn Haskell and has either given up, or is having a really tough time? Are there any 80/20 ideas or important easy wins when learning Haskell?

The biggest thing for me is you need to have intrinsic motivation. So in my case, I had an app that I wanted to build, and I had been building it in Drupal, with PHP, and that just fell flat on its face very quickly. I really wanted to build the app, for myself, not for a startup or to make money; I wanted it for myself. So I had a very high level of intrinsic motivation.

I wasn’t really a big fan of web programming back then, I was more of a back-end kind of programmer, and I thought “I want to learn a new language, Haskell seems like one of the more challenging ones that would stretch me more, maybe it’ll make web programming interesting”. As someone once said on IRC, “a spoonful of Haskell makes the web programming go down”. Which I think is a very apt description of my case, so I just dove in. I started working on it. It was a way bigger project than I should have been working on as a Haskell novice.

But I think that was good. You need to be working on something you think is maybe a little bit beyond you. And if you also have that intrinsic motivation taken care of, then it almost solves itself. You’re going to bang your head against a wall until you beat it. I’ve heard a friend of mine is really big into natural language learning and says you just have to find some way of getting over this incredible hurdle because it’s so hard. You just have to make yourself do it. For Haskell I think it’s a very similarly challenging endeavor, and you really have to have intrinsic motivation.

So the WHY is almost more important than any particular WHAT?

Yea I think so. I just started out with Project Euler problems, which is something I hear a lot of people do. And OK great, it’s like “Oh, I’ll spend some time working on this problem.” You spend an hour on it, and you don’t learn a whole lot of Haskell. You learn a little bit of the basic syntax, but not a lot that’s useful in terms of real world development. And there’s not a whole lot of intrinsic motivation there. I suppose maybe you could say, “Oh I want to finish all the problems.” But that’s not really a question of learning Haskell. That’s more a question of learning math than any particular programming language.

And so I think you need a project that’s going to push you into a fair number of realistic, real world situations. In my case, a web app was suitable. Web apps do pretty well because they involve a fair number of pieces of technology and teach you the software development process. But yea, it’s not so much the “what”, for sure. It’s just, you gotta have a reason that lights a fire under you.

I guess my own experience is a little bit like that. I had this product idea and I had done simple versions of a couple of the pieces of that idea in college in a class where I first learned Haskell. And I thought, well I could just use Haskell for this whole project. So then I put the whole project together and that’s what started getting me towards learning the more practical side of things like Stack. It also got me to learn more about monads and that sort of stuff.

So having worked on Haskell in industry, what is your take on the idea widely held in many parts of the programming community that Haskell isn’t suitable for production use? Obviously you’re very opinionated here.

Yea it just couldn’t be farther from the truth. There are plenty of people in the world who are doing production stuff in Haskell and I think that proves it. For instance, JanRain, I think, has used Snap [a Haskell library] for years. I assume they still are, but I used to be able to say “hey, when you go to ladygaga.com, you’re hitting a snap server”. And that’s real stuff. That’s solving real problems in the real world.

We don’t have yet the Google or the Facebook or something of that scale. Though Facebook actually is using Haskell (on the side), just not with their forward user facing stuff. So we don’t have a huge example to point at, but there’s certainly people using Haskell every day in production. So it’s just straight up not true that it can’t be done.

So what is the biggest challenge you’ve had using Haskell on an industry project?

There’s a couple of things that jump out. One was a some kind of machine learning or more numerical algorithm I was working on. It might’ve been a hidden markov model or something with a lot of math going on. And I had a fair amount of trouble getting that right. This was quite a while back, so I was less experienced than I am now.

I think part of the challenge there was not having the right abstractions for multi-dimensional matrix math. And I think Haskell is still not really in a fantastic state there. You can do it, you can accomplish the matrix math with say, HMatrix, and I was able to. But in terms of wrangling dimensions and units and stuff like that, I probably didn’t know to take advantage of some of the things that are available now.

There were definitely some challenges there and it seemed like a very difficult thing to get right. Although I suspect it’s difficult to get right no matter what language you’re using. So it may be the case that Haskell just doesn’t have as much of an advantage there until we get some really phenomenal matrix libraries that could help us solve that problem a lot more nicely.

Another situation where I had frustrations was with an ETL [Extract-Transform-Load == migrating a legacy system] that I was working on and it was so miserable to get right. I was just doing it the naive way bashing through the problem head-on using the IO monad. I was trying to abstract things just using functions, type classes, and whatever other functional techniques I knew about.

Maybe what I should have done is gone back and looked at some kind of a more fundamental approach, perhaps an EDSL [Embedded Domain Specific Language] with say, a GADT [Generalized Algebraic Data Type] and specifying operations representing the structure of what I was trying to do. Then I would have an interpreter that would interpret that in a test type of context where I might be counting different operations that are happening in all manner of checks that you might want to do. Then I would have another interpreter that interprets it in IO and you can kind of test these things in a more structured way.

I think there were a lot of things I could have done better in that project, but maybe as happens in so many projects, there was time pressure. And if that’s the background situation, then you’re less likely to take your time and look for a really good solution to that problem.

Like you said, there’s often a brute-force solution and then a more elegant solution in most software projects. But if you’re operating under major time pressures like so many projects are, it’s hard to find it, especially in Haskell.

I feel like if I had maybe had prior experience with using some of those more elegant solutions, I would have been more likely to jump to them. And this is maybe an obstacle in a more general way. Learning to find a reason to use some of these things, so then you’ll be able to use them in the real world.

Yea that’s a very interesting problem.

To what extent do you think abstract math is necessary to understand Haskell, and to what extent do you think it is helpful? Is there a particular instance where you’ve used higher math to solve a Haskell problem?

I don’t think it is necessary at all to be productive with Haskell. I wouldn’t consider myself super strong in category theory. I took an abstract algebra class in college, so I’m not at the bottom of the barrel, but I don’t think it was super significant to learning Haskell. Things definitely come up. You’ve got all kinds of examples of places where people have leveraged abstract math. But I feel like the knowledge of those structures might actually be part of the answer to the problem we were talking about a second ago.

If you are adequately motivated and you know about this structure somehow, you can use it. The Lens library comes to mind as one. You may not know how profunctors or prisms or whatever other concepts there are, but you know about the lens library, so you can learn about concepts that way, in a library/problem directed way. Maybe knowing the structures would help you know what to use for a more elegant solution to a problem.

But at the same time, when I have studied some category theory concepts, it’s not obvious at all how I’m going to apply them to programming, so we need to do much better as a community at bridging this gap between theory and practice. I think we already do better than any community out there though. Which is good because Haskell does have this reputation of being a very theoretical language. I think we do a great job, but I think we can still improve a lot.

Yea I’m wondering...is there even a theoretical PHP for that community to bridge?

Yea maybe that’s an oxy-moron...

What’s your favorite miscellaneous Haskell library?

Boy, that’s an interesting question. One thing that pops to mind is libraries that represent paths more semantically. So you can concatenate them and manipulate them without having to parse and split on slashes and things like that. I feel like I should have an answer to this question.

Perhaps it’s just far enough back in my brain that I’m not thinking of it right now. But yea, paths are something I encountered a while back. When you really need it, they’re a really cool thing to have...being able to target absolute paths and relative paths. There’s perhaps a whole algebra of paths there that some libraries can give you which is interesting.

What is your least favorite thing about Haskell?

I would say it’s the fact that sometimes we DON’T have referential transparency. The thing that comes to mind that I’ve encountered just recently was that I wanted to just make something generic over a particular prism but I couldn’t, because each of the prisms I would have ended up using returned a different value. So it needed to be more monomorphic than I would have ideally wanted.

So instead of having the absolute right level of abstraction, I had to add a level of repetition to get an Int64 or whatever I was prism-ing out to. We do have referential transparency but occasionally there’s some of these real-world type system restrictions that force us to be more monomorphic than we would like.

So let’s talk a little bit about Takt, where you work. I guess first, do you want to give a quick elevator pitch about Takt? What do you do, what problems do you solve, both the company as a whole, and you yourself?

The company as a whole has lots of very interesting problems. We’re a fairly large-scale data processing/data-science company automating for clients and making intelligent decisions to the point of trying to create a more personalized experience for our clients’ customers. There’s tons of interesting problems to solve there. The one that I’ve been working on most recently is just building a web front-end. And so we’re using Haskell and GHCJS and the Reflex FRP library to build UIs that are robust and easy to refactor and be confident about. So that’s my area of focus.

The company is just a fantastic place to work. It’s really refreshing to have a group of people who are unified in the pursuit of Haskell as the right solution to many of our problems. There are some cases where maybe it’s not the right solution. Maybe you just need some quick and dirty scripts on a server. Especially if you don’t have GHC on that server. So there’s plenty of real world situations where you end up reaching for something else. But as often as we can we like to reach for Haskell, and that’s a really fun environment to be involved in.

In what ways do you think Haskell is uniquely suited for solving Takt’s problems?

I feel that Haskell is uniquely suited for solving ALL the world’s software problems! I truly believe that Haskell or at least the ideas that Haskell is based on are the future of software. The future of more reliable, robust software. And so I feel like it’s going to the future for all of Takt’s software problems.

What is one piece of advice for someone you might have for someone who might want to apply to Takt?

Well if you’re not a Haskell programmer, you should learn some Haskell for sure. I even wrote a blog post awhile back about how to get a Haskell job. You can’t really expect people to hire you for a language that is as different from the mainstream as Haskell is without some prior experience. You can’t expect a company to hire you as any kind of programmer without having some prior experience programming. So I think that’s a pretty natural thing. It’s maybe frustrating for some people who have trouble finding the time to invest in learning Haskell, but it’s kind of a reality.

For Haskell programmers out there who are interested in working at Takt, talk to us! We’d love to hear from you. If you don’t want to just put your resume on a faceless website, you can contact me and open a conversation that way. It’s really nice when candidates have public work that we can look at and get an idea of what kind of Haskell skills you have. We don’t require that because there are plenty of candidates out there that don’t have that for whatever reason, but it can’t hurt.

We’re in the business of trying to reduce risk, and the more we can know about you, the better. Open source contributions are really helpful there. And the more visible that particular project is, the more it’s going to be significant in making us take a look at you and make us excited to talk to you.

Awesome. So let’s finish up with a couple questions about the broader community. What’s your take on the Haskell community at large? What are its strengths, weaknesses, etc..

I think we’re super strong in the area of just being willing to help newcomers. Super friendly. I can’t possibly count how many hours I’ve spent getting help online from people who were just giving me their time just to help me learn some abstract concept where I was taking forever to catch on. It’s just a fantastically friendly and talented community.

I’ve had the opportunity to look at jobs where we were advertised in both a Haskell forum and a non-Haskell forum and the Haskell candidates were just an order of magnitude better and more promising. Now I can’t say that proves anything, because maybe there were other differences about the way those two postings were done that would bias it somehow. But it seems to suggest that it’s a phenomenal filter. If you’re involved in the Haskell community, then you have a lot of intrinsic motivation like we talked about earlier.

You just can’t get to a working knowledge of Haskell by sitting around, being lazy, and watching TV. You gotta actually work for it. Anything in life that requires people to really work for it is going to be a strong predictor of success or maybe the ability to be successful, or a lot of attributes that are aligned and I think are valuable in potential employees.

Very interesting. What changes do you see happening in the Haskell community or the language itself in the next year?

Hmmm that’s a good question. Well I hope to be able to say in the next year or two that Takt is contributing some new libraries and new points in the ecosystem that are missing. Hopefully we can get some more companies using Haskell for adoption. I think there’s some more work recently to make Haskell more tractable for newcomers, and I think that’s fantastic. That’s an area where we’ve struggled a little bit because we are so different from the mainstream. And I really look forward to seeing things grow.

Awesome! That’s all the questions I have. Thanks so much for doing this interview.

It’s a pleasure!

Wrap Up

Hopefully our interview helped give you a better idea of what it’s like working with Haskell in industry. And as Doug mentioned, the Haskell community is very welcoming to newcomers! If you’ve never tried Haskell before, check out our Getting Started Checklist. It’ll show you what tools you need to start writing your first lines of Haskell.

If you’ve done a little Haskell already but want some more practice, you should try our free Recursion Workbook. It has lots of material on recursion and also includes 10 practice problems!

Be sure to check out the Monday Morning Haskell Blog next week. We’ll have a new piece on how we can use Haskell compiled nature to help drive our development and improve our productivity!

Learning to Learn Haskell

Obey the (Type) Laws!