How I fell in love with a programming language

After a month with Kotlin, I finally understand what the hell DHH has been saying about Ruby all these years!

Basecamp 💖 Kotlin! (Illustration by Nate Otto)

If you know only one thing about DHH, it’s that he adores the Ruby programming language. He doesn’t just like it. He genuinely loves it. There’s zero debate about this.

I’ve always highly respected his viewpoint. But I can’t say I’ve necessarily been able to fully relate to it.

Don’t get me wrong. His rationale and explanations make perfect sense. I don’t write a lot of Ruby, but I understand why people like it a lot. It’s very pretty, expressive, and clear. It has a ton of great features. Those are the facts.

But when David talks about Ruby, he doesn’t hammer on facts. Rather, he exudes emotion. Emotion is what really cuts deep and inspires people.

Sure, he also mentions some language features, but it’s far more interesting when he excitedly talks about Ruby’s beauty, how it makes him genuinely happy, and how its transformed his life. His deep passion and enthusiasm trumps any facts or features. You can tell Ruby is, to him, something special and profound. He loves it.

And it’s usually at this point when I ask myself, “What the hell is DHH talking about?”😕

The reason I could never fully relate to David’s visceral, emotionally charged stance on Ruby is because <gulp> I’ve been a Java guy for 15+ years.

I know it’s not a particularly cool thing to say, but for all its warts, Java has served me well. And as Android’s native language, it’s been a true blessing in disguise. Who knew all those years of writing shitty webapps would turn into such an awesome mobile opportunity?

But I’ve never had strong feelings about Java itself. I liked some things about it, and I hated others. Whatever…it did the job. It was fine.

For many years my perspective was simple — I didn’t have to love Java (or whatever programming language) to do my work well.

Me and my Java.

That all changed a few months ago.

At the suggestion of my Android partner in crime, Jay, we started to look more seriously at Kotlin. It had been in the back of our minds for a while, but when it hit 1.0, we took a more serious look.

Jay jumped in first with some experiments and I played around, but I didn’t think too much more about it. I continued with my 100% Fine Artisanal Java™ features.

Then about a month ago I wrote my first Kotlin class.

It was a popup adapter in just 86 lines (17 of which were package and import statements), and I couldn’t get over how concise and readable it was. I could barely comprehend how little I wrote to get something to work.

It took me a few passes, but all of a sudden, I sensed the difference. This wasn’t just about language features or what the FAQ said the language was capable of.

This was about how I felt.

It was genuinely fun. I found myself smiling. I found myself saying “holy shit” more than a few times. I’d read code over and over and couldn’t believe how much I was accomplishing in so few lines. I couldn’t believe the clarity of the writing.

Over the next few days, I wrote more and more Kotlin. I wrote my first extension. Then I converted an existing helper class and instantly cut 94 lines. I wanted to write more!

With just a few hours of effort, I cut 94 lines without breaking a sweat.

I was amazed, excited, and having a ton of fun. I was also slightly freaked out by this weird new experience brought on by a programming language.

Then it finally dawned on me. Oh my God, this is it. This is what loving a programming language is like.

Over the next couple of weeks, that warm fuzzy feeling just grew and grew.

Whenever I’d have to work with Java, it was painful. I’d find myself rushing through it and making stupid mistakes because I had more important Kotlin files to attend to.

But when I opened the Kotlin files, I felt at home, relaxed. The code was beautiful and expressive. It was concise but powerful. I kept finding new ways to write more clearly, more directly. And I was happy!

In short, I was feeling what David had felt about Ruby for all those years. I finally understood what the hell he was talking about!

And so that’s where we’re at in the love story. It’s still really early, and who knows if this is just infatuation or true love. For all I know it’ll all come crumbling down.

But no matter how it turns out, I learned this very valuable lesson (and it only took me 15+ years)…

Nobody can truly decipher a programming language‘s greatness for you. No amount of explanation will help you feel a great language at your fingertips. They may try, but it won’t fully click. You have to experience it for yourself.

If you’re programming now, but don’t love the language you’re writing, I’d encourage you to try one that has a reputation for positive vibes: Ruby, Kotlin, Swift, or Coffeescript. And don’t just read the docs and do tutorials — pick one and try building something real.

Just remember…

Good luck. I hope you find love on your journey.

We’ve been working really hard to make the all-new Basecamp 3 and its Android app as great as they can be. Check ’em out, we hope you love them. 😀

If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it! Email me or hit me up on Twitter and let’s chat.