The elephant in the room

2017 26 Mar

Have you ever tried telling someone why they should use Erlang? You boast the smaller code size, the auto healing mechanisms, the distribution and they seem really excited. They wonder why they never heard about Erlang before. And then you show them what the code looks like. All excitement goes away. The smiles disappear. Their face starts becoming really serious.

You lost them. You know you lost them. They comment on the syntax, or perhaps you do, already admitting defeat. It's unlike anything they have ever used before. And they will most likely end up not using it.

What about people who already know what the syntax looks like? As soon as you mention Erlang, the topic of the syntax comes in. It's like nothing else matters.

Perhaps the topic of syntax didn't come up. But they're still not going to try Erlang because of it.

You're probably not having these kinds of interactions at Erlang conferences. This doesn't happen with people who are already somewhat interested in, or need, the features that Erlang provides. With them the syntax is at worst a minor inconvenience.

This happens because most developers are familiar with syntaxes that look nothing like Erlang. To be clear, I include language features and other concepts like objects as part of "syntax" here. Familiarity is a very important factor to drive adoption.

You can see an example of that in the Elixir world, where the majority of people come from Ruby or already knew and liked Ruby. The 2016 survey tells us that 59% of Elixir developers were using Ruby primarily before. That's in large part because of the syntax. They will deny it of course and find other reasons. And yet, we don't see such a strong adoption of Erlang from Ruby developers, before or after Elixir appeared.

Side note: have you ever wondered why the Elixir community is, I quote, much friendlier than the Ruby community? Despite having much of the same people?

Before we continue, let me be clear. I love the Erlang syntax. It is simple and explicit. It is powerful, especially when dealing with binary data. It has very few quirks. It has little to no ambiguity. It's great. Except for persuading people to use it.

Over the years I have been writing Erlang, I have seen very few people point out that the syntax slows down adoption. We have no problem with it, so why would others? At the same time, people coming to Erlang come to solve a real problem they're having, so the syntax is fairly secondary. Even if they hate it at first, they know they can solve their problems despite the syntax.

You don't build a popular product or language by solving people's problems though. In general you end up solving some problems and creating new problems. No, you build a popular product by convincing people to use it. And you make them stay with your product by making them commit to using it.

Take MongoDB for example. It didn't become popular by working, or even by being practical. It wasn't performing its primary function and was losing people's data. That didn't stop it from becoming popular. Smart people would knowingly use a database that was losing data. Think about that for a minute.

MongoDB of course had a huge marketing machine, and they focused on that. They helped organize many meetups all over the world, complete with various swag items given for free, including a small handbook about MongoDB. All people had to do was show up.

They didn't go tell people to look at all the weaknesses their product had. They focused on the strengths. On what would convince people to try it. They would go to meetups, discuss with others, commit to try it (or try it at meetups directly), and by doing so sell MongoDB to themselves.

How do we get people to meetups though? That'd be the first step: you need to catch their attention. I believe MongoDB did this using benchmark results. Ironic isn't it? MongoDB gets fast benchmark results because they lose data, and this gets everyone to buy into the product.

The key points to remember about this are:

  • catch people's attention
  • show your product's strengths
  • make people take a commitment

Once they commit to something, you win. Everyone will not end up ultimately using your product of course, but it's at the very least become a consideration. It's on their mind. Their resolve will be stronger when they ultimately try it and inevitably run into issues.

Erlang's syntax is a weakness. Almost nobody looks at the Erlang syntax and falls in love with it at first sight. No, it takes time to learn it and understand how good it is. You need to sell Erlang to people without showing the Erlang syntax. If you do show it, then you need to hide the parts that feel alien. Function calls are OK. Recursion, not so much. Maps are OK. Records, not.

Avoiding code is not always possible when you try to sell it, especially to developers. You can however prepare them to accept the alien syntax by admitting that the syntax is not perfect before you show it. You can do this while praising it at the same time. For example, "the syntax is a little out there, but it matches the concepts perfectly, it will all make sense when you start learning".

This might not be the best introduction. Someone will need to A/B test it to find the one that gives the best results. But that should give you ideas.

When something terrible happens, mentioning that this isn't the end of the world before you tell others what happened will soften their reaction. When someone breaks your favorite item and cries over it calling themselves stupid, it's harder to get mad at them, compared to the same event with no emotional reaction.

Our behavior is largely dependent on what's at the top of our mind, so it's up to you to take advantage of this to make your case in the best conditions.

Next time you try to make someone use Erlang, remember that you should aim for getting a spoken commitment out of them, if possible before you show the syntax. If that's not possible, then prepare them to accept the flaws or the weirdness before they see them.