Here is a groundbreaking tool for software developers.
Glamorous Toolkit is the moldable development environment. It is a live notebook. It is a flexible search interface. It is a fancy code editor. It is a software analysis platform. It is a data visualization engine. All in one.
Rust has been selected as the Most Loved programming language at StackOverflow Developer Survey for five consecutive years! No other language commands so much respect.
StackOverflow Developer Survey’s Most Loved
And for good reasons. Rust is greatly lauded for:
memory safety guaranteed by the compiler (type system) and making garbage collection unnecessary
close-to-the-metal native code performance
efficient multi-core concurrency
These strengths are Smalltalk’s weaknesses, but Smalltalk’s strengths are also Rust’s weaknesses:
supremely simple object-oriented programming model (suitable for children and beginners)
supremely scalable object-oriented programming model (Alan Kay called Smalltalk a “software internet”)
flexibility of dynamic typing and late binding
super productivity and flexibility due to live coding (up to 5X more productive!)
portability of language virtual machine (byte code like in JVM and CLR)
convenience of image-based computing (persistable containerized environment)
(While multi-core concurrency is possible in Smalltalk as demonstrated by the RoarVM, unfortunately this is an experimental project that has lain fallow for a decade.)
Both programming languages are very useful in their respective domains, but neither can be used universally for all applications. The nice thing, however, is that these languages are perfectly complementary. Between them, there isn’t anything you can’t do.
If you need critical, real-time performance, Rust is your ticket, although programming is considerably more complicated. For just about everything else, Smalltalk is tickety-boo: web, desktop, mobile, data science, machine learning, Internet of Things, robotics, virtual reality, enterprise business computing, and so on. And it’s much easier, too.
It’s worth noting that in 2017, StackOverflow’s survey voted Smalltalk as the second Most Loved language after Rust. Why it disappeared from all subsequent surveys is anybody’s guess.
This is a case study of The James Robertson Memorial Programming Competition, which was created to promote the Smalltalk programming language. This is a case study by example, showing what was done and how it was done.
Promotion and Marketing
Advertising the competition at CBC.ca proved ineffective and costly. The click-through rate was infinitestimally small. Otherwise, we relied heavily on YouTube and social media.
Two websites were created, one for advertising the competition and the other for operating the competition (team registrations and team submissions). The advertising website has been archived. This website was based on WordPress.com. The domain name, jrmpc.ca, was purchased from Google Domains.
The operational website has also been archived. In the home page, Internet Archive has a problem with the embedded YouTube link, but the unplayable video is the same as the first one shown above in the YouTube Videos section (Mission: Impossible-themed).
The operational website was hosted at OVH (VPS SSD 1 running Ubuntu 16.04 LTS). The web application was written in Pharo in conjunction with the Teapot framework. The domain name, teams.jrmpc.ca, was configured at Google Domains, and the PositiveSSL certificate was purchased from Namecheap.
High schools across Canada were contacted by email, as well as snail mail. Attempts to contact various school boards were unproductive.
The T-shirts were sent to all the participating teams; they were a big hit with everyone. About 100 shirts were made available for a public giveaway at the awards ceremony at Ryerson.
If budget allows, I think Smalltalk-styled coffee mugs would be a very nice giveaway.
The open source software for the JRMPC Organiser is now available, thanks to the great effort by Ben Coman who developed it.
The trophies for First, Second, and Third Prizes all came from Innovative Imprints in Pickering, Ontario.
The awards ceremony was scheduled for Saturday, April 18, 2020 on the campus of Ryerson University. However, due to COVID-19, a virtual ceremony was conducted instead. Here was the result:
Since this is the first edition of JRMPC, there were bound to be some teething pains. We learned several important lessons:
First, the website should’ve been clearer about team composition, esp. the fact that a team must comprise four students. No exceptions.
Second, the website should’ve been bilingual so that Quebec would participate.
Third, better instructional materials should’ve been provided to the teams. Our existing tutorials and such were found wanting. Some teams complained that Pharo was too difficult to learn.
Fourth, the competition software should’ve been fully prepared, tested and debugged by the start of competition. During the course of the competition, bugs were found and the competition maps revealed weaknesses.
Fifth, a larger team of volunteers should’ve been assembled. This competition entailed a great deal more work than I imagined.
Sixth, we were fortunate that we only had 30 registered teams. In hindsight, we weren’t really set up to handle more. In order to scale the competition properly, we’d need more money, more volunteers, and we’d need to limit the competition to 100 registered teams. Also, only the first 30 teams would receive T-shirts.
Despite it all, we are pleased at the outcome.
The competition was a smashing success. Thirty teams registered from across Canada. Videos were created for each of the five rounds. I’ll just show the first and last of them here to avoid repetitiveness:
Hopefully, the information here can help you with your own programming competition.
Alan Kay, one of the co-creators of Smalltalk, has said that he’d like to see Smalltalk evolve beyond what it is today. He believes that Smalltalk is stagnating and failing to advance the software industry. While I agree with him in principle, I also take a more pragmatic position. I believe that we cannot wait for this mythical new programming language and that we must use whatever we have available today because the software industry is in crisis. The demand for more and better software created in a timely manner is continually increasing and it’s causing considerable stress for programmers and users alike.
At the moment, there is only one programming language that has any hope of meeting this demand. I do not posit this lightly nor frivolously. Here are the key reasons why Smalltalk is perfectly suited to this mission…
Smalltalk has a great and storied history.
A programming language ideally should command respect, and there’s no better way to do this than by demonstrating a wonderful record of achievements. History matters.
Smalltalk pioneered the language virtual machine and JIT compilation. It created the world’s first modern IDE. It introduced the MVC architectural pattern. It pioneered TDD (test-driven development) and XP (extreme programming). It made live coding easily accessible. It pioneered the development of object-oriented databases. It created the world’s first refactoring browser. It was instrumental in developing GUI and WYSIWYG.
It influenced the design of Objective-C, Ruby, Java, PHP, Perl, Python, Groovy, Scala, Dart, and other languages.
It popularized object-oriented programming starting with the now-iconic cover of BYTE magazine.
Today, there are three major Smalltalk vendors with thousands of enterprise users around the globe: Cincom, Instantiations, and GemTalk Systems. Many of these enterprise users are big names in the financial industry, manufacturing sector, shipping, utilities, etc., for example, JP Morgan, Desjardins, UBS, Florida Power & Light, Texas Instruments, Telecom Argentina, Siemens, and COSCO.
Smalltalk is incredibly simple and easy to use.
It’s even simpler and easier than Python! The syntax is as simple as you can imagine. It fits on a post card!
Smalltalk is extremely flexible and versatile.
Smalltalk has developed an extensive ecosystem. In the web space, you have the Seaside and Teapot web frameworks, and Amber and PharoJS for front-end development. In data science and machine learning, you have the PolyMath library, Roassal data visualization, and language bindings for TensorFlow and Keras. For Internet of Things, you have the PharoThings platform. For robotics, you have the PhaROS platform. Smalltalk is great for virtual reality!
Smalltalk is the most productive programming language in the world.
Smalltalk’s remarkable live coding capability plays a critical role here. Only two other significant languages support live coding: Forth and Lisp. But Smalltalk makes its very easily accessible.
Any new programming language, no matter how superior to Smalltalk, would lack history, a track record, an ecosystem, a user base, and mindshare. Marketing the language would face an uphill battle and growing the language’s mindshare would take a considerable amount of time.
Meanwhile, we wait and we wait and we continue fighting a backlog of software that demands to be written.
There are newer languages that compete with Smalltalk, such as Dart, Go, Julia, Kotlin, Rust, Scala, Swift, TypeScript. Some are very large and complex (Kotlin, Rust, Scala, Swift, TypeScript). Some are used in narrow domains (Julia, Rust, Swift, TypeScript). None are as simple and easy as Smalltalk. None are as productive and scalable. None support live coding. None are as elegant.
So, really, the best choice we have today is Smalltalk. It comes in various flavours to meet various needs:
Instantiations’ VA Smalltalk for enterprise markets
Cincom’s VisualWorks for enterprise markets
GemTalk Systems’ GemStone/S for high-volume, high-availability transaction processing
I am pleased to announce that Ryerson University joins the Pharo Consortium as an Academic Partner. The Consortium will strengthen Pharo’s applicability for mission-critical software development.
Ryerson does leading research in Pharo development under the auspices of Prof. Dave Mason, Chair of Computer Science. Here is one of the areas of research: PharoJS.
Ryerson just came off a major Pharo programming competition conducted in Canada. The outstanding results can be see here: JRMPC 2020 Awards Ceremony.
Pharo is a modern, open source derivative of Smalltalk that was created in 2008. It is highly innovative and forward-looking. Pharo is totally web-ready for both front-end and back-end development. Pharo is also well-suited for data science and machine learning, as well as Internet of Things applications. Pharo is used in other areas, too, such as robotics, virtual reality, enterprise business applications, and so on. The language is endlessly versatile.
Pharo is ideal for teaching object-oriented programming to beginners and college freshmen. It’s absolutely wonderful for hobbyists, too.
I hope you enjoyed it. This video represents the culmination of eighteen months of hard work on the competition. It also nicely caps off a five-year advocacy campaign for the Smalltalk programming language.
I would like to thank the following people profusely for their contributions to JRMPC and this video:
Vance Kershner, CEO of LabWare, who fully funded this competition.
Leandro Caniglia, President of FAST (Fundación Argentina de Smalltalk), who invited me to speak at the Smalltalks 2018 conference in Salta, Argentina. Without him, JRMPC would never have been funded.
Ben Coman for developing the JRMPC Organiser software. In particular, I appreciate the spectacular competition map that Ben created for the final round of the competition. You can see it in the feature image above for this post.
Bob Nemec, Organizer of TSUG (Toronto Smalltalk User Group), for being my Master of Ceremonies.
Robert Eng for providing the beautiful graphic animations produced with Blender.
My wife, Ann Liu, for helping with the photography.
FXHOME for the HitFilm Express video editor that made my job much easier than I could’ve imagined.
Norman Branitsky for introducing me to Smalltalk over a dozen years ago. Without him, I would never have begun my Smalltalk journey.
Ron Teitelbaum, CEO of 3D ICC, for allowing me to use their website graphics.
Alan Kay, Kent Beck, and Norm Green, Senior VP of GemTalk Systems, for supporting the competition.
Smalltalk is a true marvel of the software engineering world. It is renowned for its simplicity, scalability, productivity, and versatility. Smalltalk has been used for practically everything, from teaching programming to young people all the way up to massively complex software systems that are highly scalable and maintainable. For this reason, Smalltalk is a favourite in the enterprise market.
It is my wish that the JRMPC competition will inspire you to try Smalltalk programming. Discover the wonders of one of the greatest programming languages in history.