While It’s Compiling: Skills Matter interviews Martin Odersky


On the day the Scala eXchange welcomes more than 500 speakers and delegates to the Business Design Centre, Skills Matter catches up with keynote speaker Martin Odersky. The German computer scientist is the creator of Scala and the founder of Typesafe, a company to support and promote Scala. Currently a professor of programming methods at EPFL – the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology – in Lausanne, Switzerland, Martin Odersky told us about keeping Scala lean, which industries love Scala the most, and whether Scala can remain the essence of what Typesafe is and does.


Scala was first born in 2003. Has there been a lot of pressure to keep adding features? And have you always been convinced about the need to keep it lean?

There’s always pressure to add features. Users always want new features. So we tried for a long time to keep the feature set down to a reasonable size and…hopefully we’ll be able to make it even smaller.

You have described Scala as a fusion. Can you explain this in a little more detail?

The idea underlying Scala is that object-oriented programming and functional programming are not opposites but two sides of the same coin, and that one gains a lot by merging them. That’s not an amalgamation, taking all these features from functional programming and adding all these features from object-oriented programming – that way you would get a fairly large language. It’s really a fusion…So for example, the functions in Scala themselves are actually objects. Functions and objects are, in Scala, very much the same thing. And the same holds (true) for a lot of other things. Unlike many other languages that have classes and functions as types separately and then algebraic data types separately, we have one concept which is essentially classes forming a hierarchy. They serve as a framework for doing pattern matching as well, which in other languages requires an algebraic data type. So in that sense, Scala tries to have only a few concepts but very generally composable ones.

Are there particular organisations or industry sectors in which Scala has proven particularly successful?

We’ve got quite a few. I think its used everywhere there’s a JVM and nowadays it’s starting to be used on the client with Javascript as well. But there are a few verticals where Scala particularly common: It’s very much established by now in Big Data and machine learning. There, Scala is probably the number two language behind Python. Another big vertical is e-commerce – think of Walmart Canada, and many others. Another one is the finance industry – the most prevalent in London – so in the banks and the hedge funds Scala is also very common.

What have the main criticisms of Scala been and how have they been remedied?

Some of the difficulties comes from the user community, because now you have Java programmers and Haskell programmers that form part of the same community and that has proven to be a much tougher challenge than the technology. Sometimes these communities don’t get along very well, sometimes its very hard to read somebody else’s Scala code because there are different ways to write the same thing. We try to help by establishing simplicity as a criterion for a middle ground.

What was your vision when you set up Typesafe and have you been surprised by its success?

Scala already was a success and we had just run the first Scala Days..there was a lot of excitement and also a lot of people from industry – a lot of companies like LinkedIn, people from Swiss banks, Foursquare etc were talking about it. And that’s when it dawned on us that it really had bypassed the capabilities of just a research lab at my university. It was becoming too much work to continue to support it and also, we could see the opportunity. So we joined with the Akka team in 2011 to form Typesafe, and Typesafe now is I think still very much true to these roots…but it has also developed the reactive space starting with Akka, with middleware that is more application oriented and less language oriented.

A question about the direction Typesafe is going and its ongoing support of Scala, given its development of other products such as Akka and Play for Java developers. Will Scala always remain at the core of Typesafe?

Yes, I do think so. Scala is very much the essence of what Typesafe is. Internally everybody does Scala and everybody loves the Scala APIs. That’s not to say we don’t also do Java and Java 8 for the bigger market – that’s very sensible and we have to do that. But at its roots, it’s a Scala company and it will stay one.

You were a student of Niklaus Wirth in Zurich. How did that experience influence you?

When I was young, I was sort of a compiler hacker…and Modula 2 was a new language at the time and for me a very exciting language, so I wrote a Modula 2 compiler. I was actually on the cusp of joining Borland, at the time the big programming language and software company, but I decided to wait and finish my masters thesis. And then I realised that I had fun doing research so that’s when I decided not to go to Borland but to go to Niklaus Wirth – the inventor of Modula 2. At the end of my studies in Zurich (with Niklaus Wirth), I decided that functional programming was really cool and that I wanted to do more, so that’s why after Zurich I ended up doing much more functional programming.

You have had a long, varied and impressive career. What has your motivation and objective been throughout?

In Zurich with Niklaus Wirth (I was working with) very practical languages, which were also quite efficient, which functional programming wasn’t at the time. Towards the end of my PhD I discovered that functional programming could be very elegant and theoretically well founded, and that appealed to my sense of elegance and rigour. After that, I always wanted to bring the two together – to do something that’s really practical but that has the elegance and rigour of functional programming. So that led me to the work to combine functional and object oriented programming, first with Pizza, then with GJ, afterwards with Funnel and Scala.   The central question was always whether we can take the proven mainstream – object oriented programming – and the more academic notion of functional programming and combine the two harmoniously, keeping the good parts of both? That has driven me for most of my professional career.

While It’s Compiling is a continuing series of interviews with experts across a range of bleeding-edge technologies and practices, exclusive to Skills Matter. Be sure to subscribe to this blog for future interviews, or follow us on Twitter.

Find out who we’ll be interviewing next, and get a chance to put your questions forward with the hashtag #whileitscompiling.


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