Taking a Look Back: My Mistakes in Learning Haskell

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Last week, we announced our Haskell From Scratch Beginners Course. Course sign-ups are still open, but not for much longer! They will close at midnight Pacific time on Wednesday, August 29th!

The course starts next week. But before it does, I wanted to take this opportunity to tell a little bit of the story of how I learned Haskell. I want to share the mistakes I made, since those motivated me to make this course.

My Haskell History

I first learned Haskell in college as part of a course on programming language theory. I admired the elegance of a few things in particular. I liked how lists and tuples worked well with the type system. I also appreciated the elegance of Haskell’s type definitions. No other language I had seen represented the idea of sum types so well. I also saw how useful pattern matching and recursion were. They made it very easy to break problems down into manageable parts.

After college, I had the idea for a code generation project. A couple college assignments had dealt with code generation. So I realized already knew a couple Haskell libraries that could provide the foundation for the work. So I got to work writing up some Haskell. At first things were quite haphazard. Eventually though, I developed some semblance of test driven development and product organization.

About nine months into that project, I had the great fortune of landing a Haskell project at my day-job. As I ramped up on this project, I realized how deficient my knowledge was in a lot of areas. I realized then a lot of the mistakes I had been making while learning the language. This motivated me to start the Monday Morning Haskell blog.

Main Advice

Of course, I’ve tried to incorporate my learnings throughout the material on this blog. But if I had to distill the key ideas, here’s what they’d be.

First, learn tools and project organization early! Learn how to use Stack and/or Cabal! For help with this, you can check out our free Stack mini-course! After several months on my side project, I had to start from scratch to some extent. The only “testing” I was doing was running some manual executables and commands in GHCI. So once I learned more about these tools, I had to re-work a lot of code.

Second, it helps a lot to have some kind of structure when you’re first learning the language. Working on a project is nice, but there are a lot of unknown-unknowns out there. You’ll often find a “solution” for your problem, only to see that you need a lot more knowledge to implement it. You need to have a solid foundation on the core concepts before you can dive in on anything. So look for a source that provides some kind of structure to your Haskell learning, like a book (or an online course!).

Third, let’s get to monads. They’re an important key to Haskell and widely misunderstood. But there are a couple things that will help a lot. First, learn the syntactic patterns of do-syntax. Second, learn how to use run functions (runState, runReaderT, etc.). These are how you bring monadic expressions into the rest of your code. You can check out our Monads Series for some help on these ideas. We’ll also have an article on this topic next week! (And of course, you’ll learn all about monads in Haskell From Scratch!)

Finally, ask for help earlier! I still don’t plug into the Haskell network as much as I should. There are a lot of folks out there who are more than willing to help. Freenode is a great place, as is Reddit and even Twitter!

Conclusion

There’s never been a better time to start learning Haskell! The language tools have developed a ton in the last few years and the community is growing stronger. As we announced last week, we’ve now opened up our Haskell From Scratch Beginners Course! You don’t need any Haskell experience to take this course. So if you always wanted to learn more about the language but needed more organization, this is your chance!