People of Programming Languages

An interview project in conjunction with POPL 2018  

Jean Yang
Jean Yang, POPL 2018 Publicity Chair

What are these interviews?

The short story is that when Ranjit Jhala, the POPL (Symposium on Principles of Programming Languages) General Chair for 2018, asked me to be Publicity Chair, he asked me to think about ways we can better convey to the potential new members of the POPL community—from students to people from other fields to people from industry—what POPL is about. This is an especially tricky task when POPL has been growing and changing so much, in part because of all the new people! And so this project came about to crowdsource the answers.


Here is the longer story.

Principles of Programming Languages (POPL) has been around since 1973. Parsing was a major topic back then. Our field has figured out many principles since then—and programming has changed a lot. As one might expect, much of what people work on towards principles of programming languages looks quite different than what it did originally. But there are topics and aesthetics and attitudes that have been core to the community since the beginning. And that is what we want to capture and convey here.

How did we choose who to interview?

This was the tricky part. We wanted a broad sampling of people at the core of the POPL community. We decided about a third of our interviews should be people who have been around for many decades of POPL, a third should be people who have been deeply involved with POPL for the last decade, and a third should be junior members of the community. What feels like the center of mass can be deceptive, so we asked Emery Berger to help us use his Computer Science Rankings data to determine the top authors at POPL. (Note: we understand publication count is but one metric, skews towards certain factors, etc. But it does give us a data-driven metric.) The POPL veterans we interviewed are among the people who have been publishing the most actively in POPL since its inception and remain active today. We selected our active POPL community members from the top twenty most prolific POPL authors of the last decade. Our selection criteria for junior community members were that they needed to be current PhD students or postdocs with at least one POPL paper.

Note that none of the interviewees are from Carnegie Mellon University, not because the faculty and students here are not active, but because there is a conflict of interest given that my colleagues and I were involved in selecting who to interview.

How did we conduct the interviews?

We conducted interviews with people in the first two categories via Skype, recording audio from the Skype call and then using a transcription service to produce text. What you are seeing is the result of editing that text.

We conducted the student/postdoc interviews via email and then edited the resulting text.

Who was involved with this project?

Ranjit Jhala, the POPL 2018 General Chair, provided the inspiration and freedom to do this project. Rohit Singh performed many of the Publicity Chair duties so I could have more time for this project. My colleagues Robert Harper and Jan Hoffmann helped with brainstorming the concept and deciding how to choose people to interview. Annabel Satin helped manage the logistics and performed the transcription services.

Jean Yang is an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University interested in programming language design, software verification, and formal methods applied to security and privacy and systems biology.