Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Don't use Ghcide anymore (directly)

Summary: I recommend people use the Haskell Language Server IDE.

Just over a year ago, I recommended people looking for a Haskell IDE experience to give Ghcide a try. A few months later the Haskell IDE Engine and Ghcide teams agreed to work together on Haskell Language Server - using Ghcide as a library as the core, with the plugins/installer experience from the Haskell IDE Engine (by that stage we were already both using the same Haskell setup and LSP libraries). At that time Alan Zimmerman said to me:

"We will have succeeded in joining forces when you (Neil) start recommending people use Haskell Language Server."

I'm delighted to say that time has come. For the last few months I've been both using and recommending Haskell Language Server for all Haskell IDE users. Moreover, for VS Code users, I recommend simply installing the Haskell extension which downloads the right version automatically. The experience of Haskell Language Server is better than either the Haskell IDE Engine or Ghcide individually, and is improving rapidly. The teams have merged seamlessly, and can now be regarded as a single team, producing one IDE experience.

There's still lots of work to be done. And for those people developing the IDE, Ghcide remains an important part of the puzzle - but it's now a developer-orientated piece rather than a user-orientated piece. Users should follow the README at Haskell Language Server and report bugs against Haskell Language Server.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Interviewing while biased

Interviewing usually involves some level of subjectivity. I once struggled to decide about a candidate, and after some period of reflection, the only cause I can see is that I was biased against the candidate. That wasn't a happy realisation, but even so, it's one I think worth sharing.

Over my years, I've interviewed hundreds of candidates for software engineering jobs (I reckon somewhere in the 500-1000 mark). I've interviewed for many companies, for teams I was managing, for teams I worked in, and for other teams at the same company. In most places, I've been free to set the majority of the interview. I have a standard pattern, with a standard technical question, to which I have heard a lot of answers. The quality of the answers fall into one of three categories:

  • About 40% give excellent, quick, effortless answers. These candidates pass the technical portion.
  • About 50% are confused and make nearly no progress even with lots of hints. These candidates fail.
  • About 10% struggle a bit but get to the answer.

Candidates in the final bucket are by far the hardest to make a decision on. Not answering a question effortlessly doesn't mean you aren't a good candidate - it might mean it's not something you are used to, you got interview nerves or a million other factors that go into someone's performance. It makes the process far more subjective.

Many years ago, I interviewed one candidate over the phone. It was their first interview with the company, so I had to decide whether we should take the step of transporting them to the office for an in-person interview, which has some level of cost associated with it. Arranging an in-person interview would also mean holding a job open for them, which would mean pausing further recruitment. The candidate had a fairly strong accent, but a perfect grasp of English. Their performance fell squarely into the final bucket.

For all candidates, I make a decision, and write down a paragraph or so explaining how they performed. My initial decision was to not go any further in interviewing the candidate. But after writing down the paragraph, I found it hard to justify my decision. I'd written other paragraphs that weren't too dissimilar, but had a decision to continue onwards. I wondered about changing my decision, but felt rather hesitant - I had a sneaking suspicion that this candidate "just wouldn't work out". Had I spotted something subtle I had forgotten to write down? Had their answers about their motivation given me a subconscious red-flag? I didn't know, but for the first time I can remember, decided to wait on sending my internal interview report overnight.

One day later, I still had a feeling of unease. But still didn't have anything to pin it on. In the absence of a reason to reject them, I decided the only fair thing to do was get them onsite for further interviews. Their onsite interviews went fine, I went on to hire them, they worked for me for over a year, and were a model employee. If I saw red-flags, they were false-flags, but more likely, I saw nothing.

However, I still wonder what caused me to decide "no" initially. Unfortunately, the only thing I can hypothesise is that their accent was the cause. I had previously worked alongside someone with a similar accent, who turned out to be thoroughly incompetent. I seem to have projected some aspects of that behaviour onto an entirely unrelated candidate. That's a pretty depressing realisation to make.

To try and reduce the chance of this situation repeating, I now write down the interview description first, and then the decision last. I also remember this story, and how my biases nearly caused me to screw up someone's career.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Which packages does Hoogle search?

Summary: Hoogle searches packages on Stackage.

Haskell (as of 27 July 2020) has 14,490 packages in the Hackage package repository. Hoogle (the Haskell API search engine) searches 2,463 packages. This post explains which packages are searched, why some packages are excluded, and thus, how you can ensure your package is searched.

The first filter is that Hoogle only searches packages on Stackage. Hoogle indexes any package which is either in the latest Stackage nightly or Stackage LTS, but always indexes the latest version that is on Hackage. If you want a Hoogle search that perfectly matches a given Stackage release, I recommend using the Stackage Hoogle search available from any snapshot page. There are two reasons for restricting to only packages on Stackage:

  • I want Hoogle results to be useful. The fact that the package currently builds with a recent GHC used by Stackage is a positive sign that the package is maintained and might actually work for a user who wants to use it. Most of the packages on Hackage probably don't build with the latest GHC, and thus aren't useful search results.
  • Indexing time and memory usage is proportional to the number of packages, and somewhat the size of those packages. By dropping over 10 thousand packages we can index more frequently and on more constrained virtual machines. With the recent release of Hoogle 5.0.18 the technical limitations on size were removed to enable indexing all of Hackage - but there is still no intention to do so.

There are 2,426 packages in Stackage Nightly, and 2,508 in Stackage LTS, with most overlapping. There are 2,580 distinct packages between these two sources, the Haskell Platform and a few custom packages Hoogle knows about (e.g. GHC).

Of the 2,580 eligible packages, 77 are executables only, so don't have any libraries to search, leaving 2,503 packages.

Of the remaining packages 2,503, 40 are missing documentation on Hackage, taking us down to 2,463. As for why a package might not have documentation:

  • Some are missing documentation because they are very GHC internal and are mentioned but not on Hackage, e.g. ghc-heap.
  • Some are Windows only and won't generate documentation on the Linux Hackage servers, e.g. Win32-notify.
  • Some have dependencies not installed on the Hackage servers, e.g. rocksdb-query.
  • Some have documentation that appears to have been generated without generating a corresponding Hoogle data file, e.g. array-memoize.
  • Some are just missing docs entirely on Hackage for no good reason I can see, e.g. bytestring-builder.

The Hoogle database is generated and deployed once per day, automatically. Occasionally a test failure or dependency outage will cause generation to fail, but I get alerted, and usually it doesn't get stale by more than a few days. If you add your package to Stackage and it doesn't show up on Hoogle within a few days, raise an issue.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Managing Haskell Extensions

Summary: You can divide extensions into yes, no and maybe, and then use HLint to enforce that.

I've worked in multiple moderately sized multinational teams of Haskell programmers. One debate that almost always comes up is which extensions to enable. It's important to have some consistency, so that everyone is using similar dialects of Haskell and can share/review code easily. The way I've solved this debate in the past is by, as a team, dividing the extensions into three categories:

  • Always-on. For example, ScopedTypeVariables is just how Haskell should work and should be enabled everywhere. We turn these extensions on globally in Cabal with default-extensions, and then write an HLint rule to ban turning the extension on manually. In one quick stroke, a large amount of {-# LANGUAGE #-} boilerplate at the top of each file disappears.
  • Always-off, not enabled and mostly banned. For example, TransformListComp steals the group keyword and never got much traction. These extensions can be similarly banned by HLint, or you can default unmentioned extensions to being disabled. If you really need to turn on one of these extensions, you need to both turn it on in the file, and add an HLint exception. Such an edit can trigger wider code review, and serves as a good signal that something needs looking at carefully.
  • Sometimes-on, written at the top of the file as {-# LANGUAGE #-} pragmas when needed. These are extensions which show up sometimes, but not that often. A typical file might have zero to three of them. The reasons for making an extension sometimes-on fall into three categories:
    • The extension has a harmful compile-time impact, e.g. CPP or TemplateHaskell. It's better to only turn these extensions on if they are needed, but they are needed fairly often.
    • The extension can break some code, e.g. OverloadedStrings, so enabling it everywhere would cause compile failures. Generally, we work to minimize such cases, aiming to fix all code to compile with most extensions turned on.
    • The extension is used rarely within the code base and is a signal to the reader that something unusual is going on. Depending on the code base that might be things like RankNTypes or GADTs. But for certain code bases, those extensions will be very common, so it very much varies by code base.

The features that are often most debated are the syntax features - e.g. BlockSyntax or LambdaCase. Most projects should either use these extensions commonly (always-on), or never (banned). They provide some syntactic convenience, but if used rarely, tend to mostly confuse things.

Using this approach every large team I've worked on has had one initial debate to classify extensions, then every few months someone will suggest moving an extension from one pile to another. However, it's pretty much entirely silenced the issue from normal discussion thereafter, leaving us to focus on actual coding.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

How I Interview

Summary: In previous companies I had a lot of freedom to design an interview. This article describes what I came up with.

Over the years, I've interviewed hundreds of candidates for software engineering jobs (at least 500, probably quite a bit more). I've interviewed for many companies, for teams I was setting up, for teams I was managing, for teams I worked in, and for different teams at the same company. In most places, I've been free to set the majority of the interview. This post describes why and how I designed my interview process. I'm making this post now because where I currently work has a pre-existing interview process, so I won't be following the process below anymore.

I have always run my interviews as a complete assessment of a candidate, aiming to form a complete answer. Sometimes I did that as a phone screen, and sometimes as part of a set of interviews, but I never relied on other people to cover different aspects of a candidate. (Well, I did once, and it went badly...)

When interviewing, there are three questions I want to answer for myself, in order of importance.

Will they be happy here?

If the candidate joined, would they be happy? If people aren't happy, it won't be a pleasant experience, and likely, they won't be very successful. Whether they are happy is the most important criteria because an employee who can't do the job but is happy can be trained or can use their skills for other purposes. But an employee who is unhappy will just drag the morale of the whole team down.

To figure out whether a candidate would be happy, I explain the job (including any office hours/environment/location) and discuss it in contrast to their previous experience. The best person to judge if they would be happy are the candidate themselves - so I ask that question. The tricky part is that it's an interview setting, so they have prepared saying "Yes, that sounds good" to every question. I try and alleviate that by building a rapport with the candidate first, being honest about my experiences, and trying to discuss what they like in the abstract first. If I'm not convinced they are being truthful or properly thinking it through, I ask deeper questions, for example how they like to split their day etc.

A great sign is when a candidate, during the interview, concludes for themselves that this job just isn't what they were looking for. I've had that happen 5 times during the actual interview, and 2 times as an email afterwards. It isn't awkward, and has saved some candidates an inappropriate job (at least 2 would have likely been offered a job otherwise).

While I'm trying to find out if the candidate will be happy, at the same time, I'm also attempting to persuade the candidate that they want to join. It's a hard balance and being open and honest is the only way I have managed it. Assuming I am happy where I work, I can use my enthusiasm to convince the candidate it's a great place, but also give them a sense of what I do.

Can they do the job?

There are two ways I used to figure out if someone can do the job. Firstly, I discuss their background, coding preferences etc. Do the things they've done in the past match the kind of things required in the job. Have they got experience with the non-technical portions of the job, or domain expertise. Most of these aspects are on their CV, so it involves talking about their CV, past projects, what worked well etc.

Secondly, I give them a short technical problem. My standard problem can be solved in under a minute in a single line of code by the best candidates. The problem is not complex, and has no trick-question or clever-approach element. The result can then be used as a springboard to talk about algorithmic efficiency, runtime implementation, parallelism, testing, verification etc. However, my experience is that candidates who struggle at the initial problem go on to struggle with any of the extensions, and candidates that do well at the initial question continue to do well on the extensions. The correlation has been so complete that over time I have started to use the extensions more for candidates who did adequately but not great on the initial problem.

My approach of an incredibly simple problem does not seem to be standard or adopted elsewhere. One reason might be that if it was used at scale, the ability to cheat would be immense (I actually have 2 backup questions for people I've interviewed previously).

Given such a simple question, there have been times when 5 candidates in a row ace the question, and I wonder if the question is just too simple. But usually then the next 5 candidates all struggle terribly and I decide it still has value.

Will I be happy with them doing the job?

The final thing I wonder is would I be happy with them being a part of the team/company. The usual answer is yes. However, if the candidate displays nasty characteristics (belittling, angry, racist, sexist, lying) then it's a no. This question definitely isn't code for "culture fit" or "would I go for a beer with them", but specific negative traits. Generally I answer this question based on whether I see these characteristics reflected in the interactions I have with the candidate, not specific questions. I've never actually had a candidate who was successful at the above questions, and yet failed at this question. I think approximately 5-10 candidates have failed on this question.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Automatic UI's for Command Lines with cmdargs

Summary: Run cmdargs-browser hlint and you can fill out arguments easily.

The Haskell command line parsing library cmdargs contains a data type that represents a command line. I always thought it would be a neat trick to transform that into a web page, to make it easier to explore command line options interactively - similar to how the custom-written wget::gui wraps wget.

I wrote a demo to do just that, named cmdargs-browser. Given any program that uses cmdargs (e.g. hlint), you can install cmdargs-browser (with cabal install cmdargs-browser) and run:

cmdargs-browser hlint

And it will pop up:

As we can see, the HLint modes are listed on the left (you can use lint, grep or test), the possible options on the right (e.g. normal arguments and --color) and the command line it produces at the bottom. As you change mode or add/remove flags, the command line updates. If you hit OK it then runs the program with the command line. The help is included next to the argument, and if you make a mistake (e.g. write foo for the --color flag) it tells you immediately. It could be more polished (e.g. browse buttons for file selections, better styling) but the basic concepts works well.

Technical implementation

I wanted every cmdargs-using program to support this automatic UI, but also didn't want to increase the dependency footprint or compile-time overhead for cmdargs. I didn't want to tie cmdargs to this particular approach to a UI - I wanted a flexible mechanism that anyone could use for other purposes.

To that end, I built out a Helper module that is included in cmdargs. That API provides the full power and capabilities on which cmdargs-browser is written. The Helper module is only 350 lines.

If you run cmdargs with either $CMDARGS_HELPER or $CMDARGS_HELPER_HLINT set (in the case of HLint) then cmdargs will run the command line you specify, passing over the explicit Mode data type on the stdin. That Mode data type includes functions, and using a simplistic communication channel on the stdin/stdout, the helper process can invoke those functions. As an example, when cmdargs-browser wants to validate the --color flag, it does so by calling a function in Mode, that secretly talks back to hlint to validate it.

At the end, the helper program can choose to either give an error message (to stop the program, e.g. if you press Cancel), or give some command lines to use to run the program.

Future plans

This demo was a cool project, which may turn out to be useful for some, but I have no intention to develop it further. I think something along these lines should be universally available for all command line tools, and built into all command line parsing libraries.

Historical context

All the code that makes this approach work was written over seven years ago. Specifically, it was my hacking project in the hospital while waiting for my son to be born. Having a little baby is a hectic time of life, so I never got round to telling anyone about its existence.

This weekend I resurrected the code and published an updated version to Hackage, deliberately making as few changes as possible. The three necessary changes were:

  1. jQuery deprecated the live function replacing it with on, meaning the code didn't work.
  2. I had originally put an upper bound of 0.4 for the transformers library. Deleting the upper bound made it work.
  3. Hackage now requires that all your uploaded .cabal files declare that they require a version of 1.10 or above of Cabal itself, even if they don't.

Overall, to recover a project that is over 7 years old, it was surprisingly little effort.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

A Rust self-ownership lifetime trick (that doesn't work)

Summary: I came up with a clever trick to encode lifetimes of allocated values in Rust. It doesn't work.

Let's imagine we are using Rust to implement some kind of container that can allocate values, and a special value can be associated with the container. It's a bug if the allocated value gets freed while it is the special value of a container. We might hope to use lifetimes to encode that relationship:

struct Value<'v> {...}
struct Container {...}

impl Container {
    fn alloc<'v>(&'v self) -> Value<'v> {...}
    fn set_special<'v>(&'v self, x: Value<'v>) {...}
}

Here we have a Container (which has no lifetime arguments), and a Value<'v> (where 'v ties it to the right container). Within our container we can implement alloc and set_special. In both cases, we take &'v self and then work with a Value<'v>, which ensures that the lifetime of the Container and Value match. (We ignore details of how to implement these functions - it's possible but requires unsafe).

Unfortunately, the following code compiles:

fn set_cheat<'v1, 'v2>(to: &'v1 Container, x: Value<'v2>) {
    to.set_special(x);
}

The Rust compiler has taken advantage of the fact that Container can be reborrowed, and that Value is variant, and rewritten the code to:

fn set_cheat<'v1, 'v2>(to: &'v1 Container, x: Value<'v2>) {
    'v3: {
        let x : Value<'v3> = x; // Value is variant, 'v2 : 'v3
        let to : &'v3 Container = &*to;
        to.set_special(x);
    }
}

The code with lifetime annotations doesn't actually compile, it's just what the compiler did under the hood. But we can stop Value being variant by making it contain PhantomData<Cell<&'v ()>>, since lifetimes under Cell are invariant. Now the above code no longer compiles. Unfortunately, there is a closely related variant which does compile:

fn set_cheat_alloc<'v1, 'v2>(to: &'v1 Container, from: &'v2 Container) {
    let x = from.alloc();
    to.set_special(x);
}

While Value isn't variant, &Container is, so the compiler has rewritten this code as:

fn set_cheat<'v1, 'v2>(to: &'v1 Container, from: &'v2 Container) {
    'v3: {
        let from = &'v3 Container = &*from;
        let x : Value<'v3> = from.alloc();
        let to : &'v3 Container = &*to;
        to.set_special(x);
    }
}

Since lifetimes on & are always variant, I don't think there is a trick to make this work safely. Much of the information in this post was gleaned from this StackOverflow question.