The A-Z of Programming Languages: Haskell

Simon Peyton-Jones tells us why he is most proud of Haskell's purity, type system and monads.

Simon Peyton-Jones

Simon Peyton-Jones

Do you think that any language has hit that point yet, whether Haskell, C++ etc?

I don’t know. C++ is also extremely complicated. But long lived languages that are extremely complicated also often have big bases of people who like them and are familiar with them and have lots of code written in them.

C++ isn’t going to die any time soon. I don’t think Haskell’s going to die any time soon either, so I think there’s a difficult job in balancing the complexity and saying ‘well, we’re not going to do any more, I declare that done now, because we don’t want it to get any more complicated’. People with a big existing investment in it then ask ‘oh, can you just do this’, and the “just do this” is partly to be useful to them, and also because that’s the way I do research.

There’s a big mental rewiring process that happens when you switch from C++ or Perl to Haskell. And that comes just from being a purely functional language, not because it’s particularly complex.

I’m sitting in a lab and people are saying ‘why don’t you do that?’, and I say ‘oh, that would be interesting to try so we find out.’ But by the time we’ve logged all changes in it’s very complicated, so I think there’s definite truth in that Wikipedia criticism.

And on a side note, what attracted you to Microsoft research? How has the move affected your Haskell work?

I’ve been working in universities for about 17 years, and then I moved to Microsoft. I enjoyed working at universities a lot, but Microsoft was an opportunity to do something different. I think it’s a good idea to have a change in your life every now and again. It was clearly going to be a change of content, but I enjoyed that change.

Microsoft has a very open attitude to research, and that’s one of those things I got very clear before we moved. They hire good people and pretty much turn them loose. I don’t get told what to do, so as far as my work on Haskell or GHC or research generally is concerned, the main change with moving to Microsoft was that I could do more of it, as I wasn’t teaching or going to meetings etc. And of course all of those things were losses in a way and the teaching had it’s own rewards.

Do you miss the teaching?

Well I don’t wake up on Monday morning and wish I was giving a lecture! So I guess [I miss it] in theoretical way and not in a proximate kind of way. I still get to supervise graduate students.

Microsoft have stuck true to their word. I also get new opportunities [that were not available to me at university], as I can speak to developers inside the [Microsoft] firewall about functional programming in general, and Haskell in particular, which I never could before. Microsoft are completely open about allowing me to study what I like and publish what I like, so it’s a very good research setup – it’s the only research lab I know like that. It’s fantastic – it’s like being on sabbatical, only all the time.

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