Home > Uncategorized > Compiler writing is for hedgehogs

Compiler writing is for hedgehogs

It is said that a fox knows many thing, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. An insightful article by Venkatesh Rao (Venkat) showed how foxes and hedgehogs uniquely map to the two contrasting philosophical points of view of those having weak views that are strongly held (a fox) and those having strong views that are weakly held (a hedgehog).

Venkat observes that the many things the fox knows are acquired from multiple sources and that this disparate collection of knowledge is not connected together by any consistent set of core principles; the one big thing that a hedgehog knows consists of knowledge that is connected by a small set of consistent core principles.

An average developer’s knowledge of a language is very fox-like, i.e., it is culled from many particular instances with each snippet of knowledge being accompanied by the experience around which it was obtained. Back in the day, the ‘advanced’ courses I used to give to developers who had 2-3 years experience were really designed to show how the components of a language fitted together, i.e., to provide a structure to what they already knew about the language. Switching developers from an approach based on their experience of particular instances for each language feature to a rule based approach was often hard work, some developers seem to be naturally driven by itemized personal experiences.

Of necessity a compiler writer spends a lot of time studying one programming language (I’m excluding those who invent their own language as they write the compiler for it) and/or hardware cpu. This extended period of study, assuming the developer has sufficient cognitive capacity (the drop out rate is high), creates a heavily interconnected knowledge of the language in the compiler writer’s head, i.e., they understand one thing very deeply and have strong views created by the core rules they have created to organize this knowledge. These views are weakly held because experience shows that every now and again a major insight is achieved that changes the developer’s perspective completely.

This fox-like characteristic of developer language knowledge goes a long way towards explaining why religious language wars go on for so long and can be so ferocious. A fox is arguing from personal experience that is not based on a set of core principles; every point has to be argued because there is nothing connecting them, undermining one idea does not affect the status of the beliefs about anything else.

I am not arguing that being a fox is a good or a bad thing, and I am certainly not arguing that everybody should spend the huge amount of time needed to become a hedgehog (it is not a cost effective use of time). I am simply making an observation about a state of affairs, and one that is likely to continue because there are no incentives in trying to change things.

I think being a major contributor in the creation of any large and complex software system requires that somebody be or become a hedgehog.

I think that many software developers are foxes; of course to people looking in developers appear to be hedgehogs in the world of software.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

A question to answer *