Lisp Hackers: Zach Beane

I'm starting a series of interviews with lispers, who inspire me. Lisp community includes a lot of amazing programmers, who's thoughts, I believe, deserve more prominence and recognition, than they usually enjoy. Besides, unlike many other languages, lisp users span several generations of programmers: there are a lot of people, who'd made great contributions, but have since moved on. I hope to have some of them in this series as well.

And the candidate for the first interview was obvious to me. Zach Beane is the uniting link of the whole community. The creator of Quicklisp and a number of useful open-source libraries, like Vecto and ZS3, he is also always active on #lisp irc channel answering questions, as well as keeping a blog, where he shares interesting Lisp news, and supporting Planet Lisp blog aggregator. And that's not all...

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I live in Maine and enjoy hacking Common Lisp projects for fun and profit.

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

I work at a small telephone and Internet company.

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

I currently use Lisp to analyze some large data files we get from vendors and partners and produce reports. I've recently used Lisp to produce KML files for Google earth visualization of some internal data. I use stuff like cl-ppcre, drakma, postmodern, cl-mssql, cxml, and more to gather data from various systems when preparing reports. The growing library ecosystem has made it really easy to get stuff done.

Lisp is accepted because I can produce useful stuff pretty quickly with it. It's a small company with a small team so there isn't a bureaucracy to fight to use something non-standard. Does the tool work? Is the result useful? Then there's no problem.

In some cases, where it isn't a good fit for the final product, I use Lisp to prototype ideas before writing a final thing in some other language, e.g. C or Perl. But I even use CL to generate data and code in other languages, so it's still in the mix, still a part of my workflow.

What brought you to Lisp? What holds you?

Paul Graham's Beating the Averages describes a really exciting way to use an uncommon tool to great advantage. That got me interested in how I could do the same thing. I started off with some stuff in Scheme because I thought CL was old and crufty and gross, but when I started using SBCL I found it was a great, practical tool, and I never stopped using CL after that.

I continue to use CL because it has a great mix of features (object system, first-class functions, fast compiled code, multiple implementations, a fantastic standard, etc, etc) and it works well in my favorite working environment, Emacs on Linux. I feel like I know it well and I can see quickly how to use it to explore and solve new problems.

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

Making graphics with Lisp for wigflip.com. It's always fun to have an idea about some kind of visual toy and then tinker with it until it's right.

It's also fun to do something fast. A few years ago I got a project to fill out some PDF forms automatically. The project started with a few days scheduled to research third-party solutions, but in those few days I had a working prototype that used CL-PDF and CLSQL.

What you dislike the most about Lisp?

There are a lot of negative perceptions about Common Lisp that are reinforced by current and former Common Lisp users. I can accept that CL is not for everyone, but some of the criticism is just years (sometimes decades) of moaning and nitpicking about decisions made in the distant past that are not really up for review right now. I wish the people who are vocally, chronically dissatisfied with CL would go off and do their own thing and stop bothering people that are happy with Common Lisp.

There are some remarkable trolls that like to pick on CL, but they're not usually taken seriously by anyone, but "insiders" who complain about CL are perceived to be giving some sort of genuine insight. It's very annoying.

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

Quicklisp has been very rewarding. There's a lot of positive feedback from people who feel it really helped them use CL more easily. More generally, the whole CL ecosystem has been a lot of fun. I enjoy trying new libraries, sending feedback and bug reports, helping people get started, and all that stuff. Common Lisp has a lot of smart, helpful, friendly people who share a lot of knowledge, and I feel lucky to get to learn from them and to try to share what I know, too.

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

For typical projects I feel like I'm building more tools into my REPL workbench. I don't write scripts that I call from the command line, I write functions that I call from the REPL, and use the slime and Emacs environment to create and interact with data, whether it's data from a file, from a computation, from the web, a database, etc.

I find it really helps to have small, focused functions that are easy to follow and that do one thing and do it well. The fine granularity of testing, tracing, intermediate values, etc. can help wire together a very useful set of behaviors from a small core of simple functions.

Some productivity ideas...

Knock the rough edges off your working environment. Write code to automate stuff. Make it easy to repetitively do complicated but boring stuff. For example, I used to be afraid of the hassle of making new releases of my projects, but recently wrote a CL program that does everything for me, from PGP-signing the tarballs to uploading them along with the documentation to my website. Now I don't care if I make ten project releases in a day, it's just a few function calls.

Customize your environment to make it comfortable. Make it easy to look up info in the hyperspec or in other documentation sources. Make it easy to create new projects. I use quickproject a lot for that, but I also have some Emacs templates that put some boilerplate into my files automatically. Make a program do your work for you.

How did quicklisp change your life? What are current plans for its development?

I can get up and running in a new environment very quickly now. Before Quicklisp, I could usually build up a set of libraries that were comfortable and useful, but it could be a hassle to move them from computer to computer, or to make sure they were up-to-date. Now I just use Quicklisp and don't worry about it.

As Quicklisp maintainer, it's really helped me see where some people are coming from when they want to try Common Lisp. It's a totally different mindset than what I'm used to. I think there's room for some documentation or tutorial on the system-oriented, REPL-workbench style of Common Lisp development that I like to use.

I want to write more documentation for Quicklisp, particularly how users can publish their own software for it or customize it via its internal protocols.

I also want to gather and share documentation for all Quicklisp-loadable projects, so there can be a single place to learn what a given project does, and get access to all its documentation.

I'd also like to make it easy for people to share feedback about their experiences with a project, so you could decide if it's likely to fit your needs. Something like the feedback you see for products on Amazon, but for Lisp libraries.

Anything else?

Common Lisp is a great system that rewards in-depth study.

P.S. Xach gave a talk about Quicklisp at the last ECLM, and I think his motto for Lisp development, he presented there, is really worth sharing and following :)

PPS. And here is the Hacker News discussion. submit

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