TITLE: OOPSLA Evolving AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 04, 2007 6:40 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I have like to write programs since I first learned Basic in high school. When I discovered OOPSLA back in 1996, I felt as if I had found a home. I had been programming in Smalltalk for nearly a decade. At the time, OOP was just reaching down into the university curriculum, and the OOPSLA Educators' Symposium introduced me to a lot of smart, interesting people who were wrestling with some of the questions we were wrestling with her. But the conference was about more than objects. It had patterns, and agile software development, and aspect-oriented programming, and language processing, and software design more generally. It was about programs. The people at OOPSLA liked to write programs. They liked to look at programs, discuss, and explore new ways of writing them. I was hooked. When objects were in ascendancy in industry, OOPSLA had the perfect connection to academia and industry. That was useful. But now that OOP has become so mainstream as to lose its sense of urgency, the value of having "OO" in the conference name has declined. Now, the "OO" part of the name is more misleading than helpful. In some ways, it was an accident of history that this community grew up around object-oriented programming. Its real raison d'etre is programming. The conference cognoscenti have been bandying about the idea of changing the name of the conference for a few years now, to communicate better why someone should come to the conference. This is a risky proposition, as the OOPSLA name is a brand that has value in its own right. You can see one small step toward the possibility of a new name in how we have been "branding" the conference this year. On the 2007 web site, instead of saying "OOPSLA" we have been saying ooPSLA. There are a couple of graphical meanings one can impose on this spelling, but it is a change that signals the possibility of more. It has been fun hearing the discussions of a possible name change. You can see glimpses of the "OOPSLA as programming" theme, and some of the interesting ideas driving thoughts of change, in this year's conference program. General chair Richard Gabriel writes:
I used to go to OOPSLA for the objects -- back in the 1980s when there was lots to find/figure out about objects and how that approach -- oop -- related to programming in general. Nowadays objects are mainstream and I go for the programming. I love programs and programming. I laugh when people try to compare programming to something else, such as: "programming is like building a bridge" or "programming is like following a recipe to bake a soufflé." I laugh because programming is the more fundamental activity -- people should be comparing other things to it: "writing a poem is like programming an algorithm" or "painting a mural is like patching an OS while it's running." I write programs for fun the way some people play sudoku or masyu, and so I love to hear and learn about programs and programming.
Programming is the more fundamental activity... Very few people in the world realize this -- including a great many computer scientists. We need to communicate this better to everyone, lest we fail to excite the great minds of the future to help us build this body of knowledge. OOPSLA has an Essays track that distinguishes it from other academic conferences. An OOPSLA essay enables an author to reflect ...
... upon technology, its relation to human endeavors, or its philosophical, sociological, psychological, historical, or anthropological underpinnings. An essay can be an exploration of technology, its impacts, or the circumstances of its creation; it can present a personal view of what is, explore a terrain, or lead the reader in an act of discovery; it can be a philosophical digression or a deep analysis. At its best, an essay is a clear and compelling piece of writing that enacts or reveals the process of understanding or exploring a topic important to the OOPSLA community. It shows a keen mind coming to grips with a tough or intriguing problem and leaves the reader with a feeling that the journey was worthwhile.
As 2007 Essays chair Guy Steele writes in his welcome,
Perhaps we may fairly say that while Research Papers focus on 'what' and 'how' (aided and abetted by 'who' and 'when' and 'where'), Essays take the time to contemplate 'why' (and Onward! papers perhaps brashly cry 'why not?').
This ain't your typical research paper, folks. Writers are encouraged to think big thoughts about programs and programming, and then share those thoughts with an audience that cares. Steele refers to Onward!, and if you've never been to OOPSLA you may not be able to what he means. In many ways, Onward! is the archetypal example of how OOPSLA is about programs and all the issues related to them. A few years ago, many conference folks were frustrated that the technical track at OOPSLA made no allowance for papers that really push the bounds of our understanding, because they didn't fit neatly into the mold of conventional programming languages research. Rather than just bemoan the fact, these folks -- led by Gabriel -- created the conference-within-a-conference that is Onward!. Crista Lopes's Onward! welcome leaves no doubt that the program is the primary focus of the Onward! and, more generally, the conference:
Objects have grown up, software is everywhere, and we are now facing a consequence of this success: the perception that we know what programming is all about and that building software systems is, therefore, just a simple matter of programming ... with better or worse languages, tools, and processes. But we know better. Programming technology may have matured, programming languages, tools, and processes may have proliferated, but fundamental issues pertaining to computer Programming, Systems, Languages, and Applications are still as untamed, as new, and as exciting as they ever were.
Lopes also wrote a marvelous message on the conference mailing list last October that elaborates on these ideas. She argued that we should rename OOPSLA simply the ACM Conference on Programming. I'll quote only this portion:
Over the past couple of decades, the words "programming" and "programmer" fell out of favor, and were replaced by several other expressions such as "software engineer(ing)", "software design(er)", "software architect(ure)", "software practice", etc. A "programmer" is seen in some circles as an inferior worker to a "software engineer" or, pardon the comparison!, a "software architect". There are now endless, more fashionable terms that try to hide, or subsume, the fact that, when the rubber hits the road, this is all about developing systems whose basic elements are computer programs, and the processes and tools that surround their creation and composition. ... While I have nothing against the new, more fashionable terms, and even understand their need and specificity, I think it's a big mistake that the CS research community follows the trend of forgetting what this is all about. The word "programming" is absolutely right on the mark!, and CS needs a research community focusing on it.
On this view, we need to rename OOPSLA not for OOPSLA's sake, but for the discipline's. Lopes's "Conference on Programming" sounds to bland to those with a marketing bent and too pedestrian for those who with academic pretension. But I'm not sure that it isn't the most accurate name. What are the options? For many, then default is to drop the "oo" altogether, but that leaves PSLA -- which breaks whatever rule there is against creating acronyms that sound unappealing when said out loud. So I guess the ooPSLA crowd should just keep looking. -----