A conversation with Randal L. Schwartz

May 2nd, 2008 § 3 comments

During FISL, I had the opportunity to watch Randal L. Schwartz talk about Seaside. Schwartz is very well known in many open source communities–especially in the Perl one–and now is evangelizing Smalltalk and Seaside. I asked him if we could talk a bit about the subject, given my previous interest in the field, and he graciously agreed to an interview.

Without further ado, here’s what we talked about:

Tell us a bit about you: what’s your background, how did you started programming, what are you doing today?

I taught myself programming when I was 9. By the time I was 15, I was teaching programming from the front of the room to my classmates, and writing contract code on the weekends for real money.

I worked for three different companies for a total of eight years, before starting Stonehenge in 1985. Stonehenge has grown over the years: we’ve can count 17 of the Fortune 100 Companies as our clients.

I spend a lot of my time lecturing and writing these days, but I also still design, create, and review code as well. I answer questions for free for about an hour or two each day on the dozens of mailing lists and blogs and web communities I frequent.

You are extremely famous in the Perl community, but now you are strongly advocating Smalltalk/Seaside. What did change? When did you start using Smalltalk?

I started using Smalltalk before Perl was even invented, back in 1982. I’ve already written that story up at my blog.

What are Smalltalk advantages over other traditional languages like Perl, Ruby or Python, for example?

Smalltalk has a very simple syntax: I can teach the entire syntax in about 20 minutes, and include it as part of my talk introducing people to Seaside. The major Smalltalk implementations (except GNU Smalltalk) also have a mature IDE, allowing easy exploration of code relationships, and to learn the libraries as needed by looking at both the implementation and the uses.

And that’s a bonus as well: we have two commercial smalltalks (Cincom and GemStone/S) as well as two open smalltalks (Squeak and GNU Smalltalk) all supporting Seaside. This allows a nervous manager who might be hesitant at selecting a strictly “volunteer-based” language to also have two commercial vendors to pick up support. Options are good!

Do you believe Smalltalk will finally reach mainstream status?

Well, it *had* mainstream status in the mid 90s, just before Java entered, at least with large Wall Street firms and other institutions who wanted rapid GUI development to stay ahead.

But yes, I believe Smalltalk is positioned today to reenter as a major player. For details, see my “Year of Smalltalk” post.

Also, your talk was entitled, “Seaside: Your Next Web Framework”. What is really interesting about Seaside?

I like how Seaside can abstract both control flow (along one axis) and representation (along the other axis) with relative ease. Seaside seems to put the right related things near each other. I also like the “debug the broken webhit within the webhit”: when something blows up, I can explore in the standard debugger, fix what’s broken, patch up any mess, and then continue within the same web hit, as if nothing broke.

Also, the traditional Rails persistence is provided with Active Record, which requires objects to go through an object-relational mapper to drive SQL queries. Seaside can do the same thing (via GLORP), but a better solution is to avoid the mapping entirely, using things like the open source Magma solution, or the commercial GemStone/S Virtual Machine. When you can get rid of the ORM layer, you get a lot of speed back, and a much easier programming environment.

What do you see in Seaside’s future, and how does it compare to the future of the other frameworks?

The Seaside team is currently refactoring and repackaging Seaside so that portability will be easier to manage and so that you can pull in just the parts that you need. I also see a lot of bolt-ons being created, like the Pier CMS and adaptors for various APIs such as Google Graphs.

Do you think the market is ready for Seaside?

Yes. Ruby on Rails reopened the discussions about what to do in a post-Java world, by going back to the late-binding languages like Perl and Python and Smalltalk. And Seaside is a mature framework, being even older than Rails, but just not as well known. I’m hoping to change that.

Have you deployed anything using Seaside? If so, what were the challenges?

I’m working on a few projects now, but nothing is public yet. The initial challenge was the relative lack of documentation, so I spent the better part of two days going through every posting to the Seaside mailing list. I feel much better informed now, but my eyes were pretty bleary. I hope to repackage the knowledge I gained into postings to my blog as well as helping to answer questions on the IRC channel and mailing list.

You are now part of the Squeak Foundation Board. What are your plans for the Foundation?

My primary concerns are licensing issues, release management, and proper publicity. All of these issues are being addressed, but of course, we’re all volunteers and always looking for more qualified volunteers to help.

Are there any Squeak Foundation plans for Seaside?

Nothing formal that I’m aware of. However, Squeak is the primary development platform for Seaside, so we’re sure that Squeak will remain an essential component.

What are the most promising developments in the Smalltalk/Seaside world currently?

Well, what got me involved is GLASS, the GemStone/Linux/Apache/Seaside/Squeak solution to get people up and running with Seaside quickly. This also entailed the GemStone management creating a zero-cost commercial license for a fully functional (but limited) version of GemStone/S. With this free version of GemStone/S, you can build a business, and when your business exceeds the capabilities, there are strategies about migrating to larger licenses that are reasonable. It’s a great solution for getting a rock-solid commercially-supported Smalltalk VM with persistence and clustering into your plans.

What about next year’s FISL. How did you manage to get three entire days for Smalltalk?

As I said, “it all started over a couple of Caipirinhas…”

What are your plans for those three days? Do you plan to bring other Smalltalkers?

I will be working with the FISL organizers and the various vendors and groups of the Smalltalk community to produce a full mini-conference. I hope to have both beginning and advanced Smalltalk training, as well as various Seaside tutorials. I expect this conference will attract a significant number of Smalltalk developers to FISL for the first time, as well as expose Smalltalk to the remainder of FISL, so it’s a win for everybody.

Many thanks, Mr. Schwartz, for the interview.

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