an afternoon with Don Knuth

It’s not often you get the chance to spend an afternoon with probably the most famous hacker/developer/computer scientist the world has ever seen. However, last week I got the chance to do just that when myself and three colleagues had the great fortune to spend some time with Don Knuth.

For the uninformed IT “professionals” that have never heard of Don Knuth this is the guy that brought to us the idea of analysis of algorithms and asymptotic notation (big-O notation), the Knuth-Morris-Pratt string searching algorithm, the Art of Computer Programming book series, the list goes on. However, he is not only an “algorithm’s guy”, he also developed the Tex typesetting system and the METAFONT language used to define vector fonts. So basically he is the most famous computing guy out there.

Knuth is a surprisingly easy guy to talk to. Sure, he can really lose you pretty quickly in a conversation, but he also has some great insights.

Our conversations tended to centre around stuff to do with algorithms. His next volume of the Art of Computer Programming will likely focus on constraint satisfaction problems and satisfiability problems – the former being something I worked on myself in the not to distant past. I asked what he thought was a good algorithm to teach people and he said he thought the biparite graph matching algorithm was a nice one in terms of beauty (he did mention another which escapes me now). Not everyone will find the algorithms stuff that interesting (you should!) but his view of beauty is maybe something more universal.

He also expressed a love for writing code, he said that when he gets up in the morning he thinks about writing code and misses it on days when he doesn’t get the chance. That is pretty cool by me and sits in stark contrast to many academics. I got the feeling that he wasn’t too keen on the “apps” developers as he called them. My guess is that his thoughts lie with more meaningful problems than fart apps – however people download them so who are we to say. Still, there was definitely some lamenting going on about the fact that people use software without ever trying to understand what the software is actually doing. That is, have at least a high-level view of the data structures and algorithms used that make the said piece of software useful. Having this kind of understanding allows you to select the right tools for the job. In my experience people that tend to have this knowledge and understanding are far better developers and is likely why Google, Microsoft, Facebook et al. try to attract developers with this kind of knowledge.

He was telling us that he watched The Social Network on the way over on the plane. He said he thought it was great how Mark Zuckerberg was also someone who just liked building stuff like him – this was something Zuckerberg said himself at Startup School 2010. What is even cooler is Mark Zuckerberg actually sent him a copy of the latest Art of Computer Programming book and asked him if he would sign it for him.

So Don Knuth himself will have long forgotten who I am but at least I will be able to recollect years down the line this encounter with a computing genius.

is ruby killing your career?

I’m probably at the point with Ruby where I consider it my programming language of choice (I program in both Ruby and C++ in my day job).

Over the last few years I’ve kind of grown to love Ruby but I’m not really one to get passionate over someone else’s choice of programming language – apart from Java, which, I’m sorry, I hate. However, when it comes to employment, there is no doubt in my mind that being competent in a particular programming language can strongly influence A) getting an interview and B) getting the job.

This is why ruby developers, like me, are killing their career. Sure Ruby is cool and Rails is awesome but do a quick check on job boards and see how many people are looking for a ruby developer. Actually, let me save you the time I’ve done some of the work already.

I’m not claiming this to be scientific in anyway what-so-ever but it does warrant some thought. I only searched using the programming language as a keyword, which, I know, may not give the full story but should convince you there is some merit in the point that I’m trying to make. Additionally (and I suppose somewhat importantly) my search area was restricted to Scotland.

First up I carried out a search on The table below gives a summary of the results:

Language Number of jobs matching keyword
Ruby 3
Java 18
C# 26
C++ 9

I then tried a

Language Number of jobs matching keyword
Ruby 2
Java 35
C# 45
C++ 45

As you can see, the job prospects for Ruby developers here in Scotland are somewhat dire. Sure, people don’t always look for a particular programming language when employing someone (which is a decent policy) but, as I said above, it helps a lot.

I decided to take my crude search a little further as I thought “Hell, there will be waaaaaaay more cool Ruby jobs in London”. Below we have the results, just cwjobs this time:

Language Number of jobs matching keyword
Ruby 57
Java 792
C# 838
C++ 611
PHP 196

That was kind of disappointing! Ruby still doesn’t do that great – even worse when you realise there were over 200 that mentioned Perl and 150 Python. By the looks of it if you want to maximise your chances of getting a job in the UK, and already doing Java or C# in your day job, you’d be better off learning C/C++ in your spare time.

Is all this going to stop me coding in Ruby? Probably not. Is it worth thinking about for a minute? Yes sure. If I was starting my own company and was hoping to get some developers in then I’m likely to be faced with a problem. Yes you can train people up, but that costs time and money. When they leave it may be worse, as the chances of finding replacements at the required skill level will be difficult. Finding a Java/C#/C++ programmer is bound to be far easier.

So is it all bad news for us Ruby developers? Well not if you plan to move to California – yeah yeah I know I’ve went on about it before. I’m not exactly sure of the popular job boards in the US so I went with the only one I knew off the top of my head, The results for the Bay Area are as follows:

Language Number of jobs matching keyword
Ruby 27
Java 33
C# 10
C++ 23
PHP 17

Maybe this was a skewed sample set but impressive all the same. So moral of the story is if you want to be a well paid Ruby hacker make sure you don’t stay in Scotland :-).