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Languages popularity

Languages popularity

An article posted on monday on Revolution Analytics echoes the latest report published by Redmonk, which shows which programming languages are most popular. In this report, Python climbed to position #3 and R registered a slight step back, to #14. So, what does it tell us? Well, not much, I'm afraid.

Useful information

Of course, the first thing is that putting all languages in one bag seems a bit silly, to say the least. How often do you hesitate between C and Javascript? And why is the popularity contest run every six months by Redmonk and every month by TIOBE? How does that relate to anything in the real world?

But it´s not just the methodology I have a problem with. I believe the value of any piece of information is directly proportional to the value of the decisions you can make based on it. So, what decision can we make based on the knowledge that Redmonk or TIOBE reports that some language (let's call it "wiggly") that used to be #11 is now #15, for example?

  • Shut down all projects written in wiggly
  • Shut down all future plans to write anything in wiggly
  • Convert all projects written in wiggly to a language in the top 10
  • Organise trainings for all wiggly people willing to evolve to something more fashionable and fire all those who won't

Well, I guess we can agree all the above seems a bit over the top. But if you were to make such a decision, what would you do if in the next report, dear wiggly was to climb back to #8? And if you aren't to make any such decision, exactly what kind of decision can you make based on the report?

Well, since this is not about the technical merits of the languages themselves, maybe it's about the market. So, what does it say about the market? Not much. We get a picture of how much activity GitHub and StackOverflow see for these forty languages. It doesn't say anything about the value of mastering these languages on the market and it doesn't tell anything about the value generated by these languages on the market either.

So, if it's not about the technologies themselves, not about the value of the skills, the size of the market or what technology is right, then what is it about? I guess the answer is that it reflects trends and fashions, and I'm not sure I want to make any decision based solely on that.

Making decisions

So, if these kinds of reports aren't of any help in making decision, then what is? What should we be considering? I'm not stupid enough to believe I hold the definitive answer to that question, but to me, there are a few things that you must take into account, always.

The team

A project is first and foremost made up of the people involved in it. Besides being all sweet and cute, this sentence should act as a reminder that to get a project done, you need people with the right skills. So, whenever I need to decide on some technology, I first ask myself what these people know already. Especially when a project is about exploring new grounds, it's better to do it with a toolset you already master. Starting a new project, in a new domain, in a new language and possibly with new people seems a little risky to me. This is not to say that any novelty should be ruled out from the start: introducing new languages and technologies is healthy and useful, but I believe it should be done while keeping in mind a clear career path for the people on the team. In other words, this is long-term thinking, not something you revise entirely every month or even twice a year. As a side effect, not jumping on everything new and shiny can help getting a product well written, easy to maintain (or rather, not completely horrible to maintain, since you are less likely to discover unexpected shortcomings with the technology) and with a better time to market as a result.

Community and ecosystem

If the reports from Redmonk and TIOBE give some idea about the size of the respective communities behind the different languages, they tell nothing about the culture their programmers evolve in. Are they a good match to yours? Is there enough documentation available on your favourite support, be it books, forums, tutorials, mailing lists or IRC channels? Or are there enough open source code you can study, if this is how your team likes to learn about technology? Also, are there enough libraries available so you won't be pioneering your field in a language new to you? Another thing is that a large community is not always a good thing: as a community grows, the average skill of potential hires you can get from it gets lower and lower. This may or may not be a problem, depending on the project or the sector, but it is important to factor this in the equation.


The two considerations above already cover this item to a great extent, so no need to rehash everything I already said. The question remains the same I ask myself with any project decision: how much does introducing a new technology cost in short term and in the long run? It's not much of a surprise, but no popularity contest can provide a proper answer to that question.

So, in conclusion, I really can't see the point of these reports. In the latest TIOBE Index for March 2017, the star is Swift, which is entering the top 10. Who would have guessed programming on the iPhone, with the technology stack actively pushed by Apple is a popular thing do? I certainly didn't, but I'm not losing anymore time; I already started rewriting all my MATLAB code in wiggly.