Lisp Hackers: Slava Akhmechet

Slava Akhmechet published several enlightening essays at defmacro.org, of which one I often recommend to people, interested in learning about Lisp: The Nature of Lisp. He also created a continuation-based Lisp web-framework - Weblocks, backed by a delimited continuations library cl-cont. Other then that he is a co-founder of a startup company RethinkDB, of which he tells a bit in the interview.
Tell us something interesting about yourself.

For a long time I thought that human achievement is all about science and technology. In the past few years I realized how misled I was. Hamlet is as important an achievement as discovering penicillin. I wish I'd figured out earlier that science, for all its usefulness, is very limiting if one adopts it as an article of faith.

What's your job? Tell us about your company.

I'm a founder at RethinkDB. We spent three years building a distributed database system that we're about to open source and release in the next two weeks. The system allows people to easily create clusters of machines, partition data in a click of a button, and run advanced, massively parallelized, distributed queries using a very comfortable query language we've designed. The product is really delightful to use — we were just playing with it today to analyze census data for the upcoming presidential election in the U.S. and using it to play with the data is a real joy. I'm very proud of what we've done here — I hope it will make lots of people's jobs easier and let them do things they couldn't have done before.

My job here is to do the most important thing at any given time. Sometimes it means fixing bugs, sometimes it means demoing the product to customers, and sometimes it means driving to buy supplies so our developers can get their jobs done.

Do you use Lisp at work? If yes, how you've made it happen? If not, why?

We don't use Lisp, but much of our software is built on ideas borrowed from Lisp. We don't use it because we needed low level control — most of the code is written in C++, even with some bits of assembly. But we've borrowed an enormous number of ideas from Lisp. In fact, if we weren't Lispers, we would have built a very different (and I think significantly more inferior) product.

What brought you to Lisp? What holds you?

A guy named bishop_pass on gamedev.net forums about fifteen years ago. He was a really good advocate and I respected his opinions because of other subjects, so I decided to check Lisp out. I enjoyed it immensely, and spent years hacking in it. Today the only Lisp I still use is Emacs Lisp. I honestly don't know if I'll program in Lisp again (other than for fun, of course), but the ideas behind it will be with me forever.

What's the most exciting use of Lisp you had?

I built cl-cont — a macro that converts Lisp code to continuation passing style. I honestly think I learned more about programming from that experience than from anything else I've done before or after.

What you dislike the most about Lisp?

Probably the arrogance of the community that surrounds it. Knowing Lisp certainly doesn't make one a better person, nor even necessarily a better programmer.

Among the software projects you've participated in what's your favorite?

Definitely RethinkDB. We took a really complex subject (real-time distributed systems) and made them extremely accessible and super-easy to use. I love the product both because we made the user experience a joy, and because of the really advanced technology that goes inside to make that happen (from low-level assembly hacks, all the way up to abstract mathematics).

If you had all the time in the world for a Lisp project, what would it be?

I'd want to build my own Lisp dialect. I know, I know, it's been done to death, there is no need to do it, and it only hurts the community, but in the presence of infinite time, it's just too much fun not to do.

Describe your workflow, give some productivity tips to fellow programmers.

The most important thing I learned on productivity is this Alan Kay quite — "Perspective is worth 80 IQ points." You could be the most productive person in the world, but it won't make the slightest bit of difference if you're pointing your talents in a direction that isn't useful to other people. If you're talented, your gift is precious and your time is limited. Learn how to direct your talents, it will be the most important thing you do.

You're currently a co-founder of a startup company RethinkDB, which went through YCombinator. As an insider of the startup ecosystem, in your opinion, what are the areas for Lisp use in startups nowadays with the biggest potential upside and why?

This isn't a popular stance in the Lisp community, but I think that today Lisp is mostly valuable as an education tool, as a means of thinking, and as an engine of ideas. It's very important for that. But as far as practical use goes, there are better options today.

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