Incentives Behind Programming Languages

Oct 7, 2023

Programming languages are expensive to develop. They take expert programmers with a deep technical skill set. They require probably a decade of development to reach maturity. For example, Go took five years to reach version 1.0, with top-tier engineers working on it (Rob Pike, Robert Griesemer, and Ken Thompson). Not to mention the other supporting roles: developer relations, hosting (for languages with package managers), and more. Research grants might not cover the cost of developing a language anymore (as they did for something like Python).

So, what incentives drive programming language development?

Since most programming languages are open source, many of the same rules apply. Hiring, marketing, and goodwill. These are constants across any open-source strategy. The chance to publish research attracts some of the brightest thinkers in PL (people who might also have other great ideas for your business). Developers who already know Go might be able to ramp up on certain teams at Google quickly. But those aren’t always strong enough reasons to spend significant R&D budgets on continued language maintenance. Programming languages are a decades-long endeavor (and that’s if it works).

The strategy that becomes more interesting is go-to-market (complement). Things that you can sell around languages:

  • Consulting services, training.
  • Tools (e.g., an editor, a profiler, a compiler).
  • Hardware (e.g., Swift)
  • Platform (e.g., .NET)
  • Product (e.g., Meta’s Hack)

Of course, there’s still the lone developer who manages to create an ecosystem around a language. Yukihiro Matsumoto (matz) when he created Ruby in 1995 because he wanted an object-oriented scripting language.