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Getting to the root of Perl's perception problems

The interest in improving the perception of Perl is increasing every day (much to my surprise!). From Matt S Trout's initiative to feed patches back to the maintainers of perl.org to Jon Allen's TPF grant application to "Improve the visual design of Perl websites," to Gábor Szabó's "Measurable objectives for the Perl ecosystem," each step builds on the next. All of them are tangible and practical steps toward a Perl renaissance online.

Of even more interest is the approach. Like many Perl programs of the past, it appears like the first thought is "Let's just fix this fast," which sometimes can happen even before the problem has been well defined (ahem, spaghetti code anyone?). And while the speed of the "Just Freakin' Do It" approach works when trying to get people excited, it can sometimes miss the mark around harnessing a community's collective wisdom. In my experience, the Perl community has a lot of collective wisdom to tap in to and should be thinking as long term as possible when it comes to re-defining what the Perl community looks like to the outside world.

So, in the interest of pushing the conversation forward another step, I wanted to explore two questions:

  1. What is the Perl community "selling" to the outside world?
  2. Who is the Perl community "selling" its message to?

What is the Perl community "selling" to the outside world?

There's some marketing-speak saying that I read once that went something like "Your not selling a product, you're selling feelings." And, supposedly, that's why advertising tries to make us think that buying a car will make us feel a certain way: sexy, safe, or environmentally-conscious. That sad thing is, this approach is kind of bang-on. People often buy things to make them feel a certain way.

So, what is it that we want people to feel about buying into Perl? I don't have the answer to this, but -- in some ways -- it's connected to Gábor's questions about "Measurable objectives for the Perl ecosystem." Gabor's proposed objectives are what, in my work, I would call "indicators." These types of metrics would indicate that certain inputs (people, time, etc.) and activities (advocacy, grants, etc.) are producing tangible -- measurable -- outcomes for the Perl community. And while raw indicators are a good start, having a prioritized list of indicators and a sense of the targeted impacts would be even more ideal.

But, before those measurable objectives can be prioritized, the question of "What is the Perl community "selling" to the outside world?" needs to be answered. Or, put another way: What is the change that we want to see?

It's a tough question.

Here's my list. I want people to feel:

  • A sense of excitement about Perl: using it, learning it, and so on;
  • That examples of Perl "in the wild" are plentiful and impressive;
  • Like there are lots of opportunities in the Perl community: jobs, participation, and so on;
  • A consistent sense of "where they are" in the Perl ecosystem, to have a sense of how all the different pieces (Web sites) fit together;
  • A sense of connection to other people using Perl;
  • And, finally, I want people to feel a raw "awe" at the sheer size of the community -- Perl Mongers, Perl Monks, Use Perl, YAPC, etc. -- and the activity within it: CPAN updates, CPAN ratings, Project updates, Iron Man, and so on.

(If you have a list of your own, please pop them into the comments before you forget.)

Who is the Perl community "selling" its message to?

The next logical question I usually ask is "Who are the people that you know that you are trying to speak to?" and "What can they do to support the change you want to see?" and, finally, "What do they want from you?" Part of my consulting work is helping organizations ask these questions as part of something I call a "Web logic model" that tries to connect organizational mission with the actual activities undertaken and the desired (measurable) outcomes. I'll spare you all the boring details of the process, but I did a quick sketch of this and came up with the following types of people that the Perl community should be trying to speak to (probably obvious to most, but helpful later on):

  • Searchers
  • Learners
  • Employers
  • Job hunters
  • Perl programmers
  • Other programmers
  • Academics & researchers
  • Journalists (tech)
  • I/T decision makers (CIO, CTO, I/T Project Managers, etc.)
  • Hobbyists & enthusiasts

The next step I usually encourage is some prioritization of these types of people, in relation to the "change" discussed above. For example, if part of the change that the Perl community wants is more corporate adoption, or less of the "we use Perl but don't admit it" syndrome, then people that fall into the " I/T decision makers" group might be a priority to hit over the head with a compelling message.

I don't want to make too many assumptions on behalf of what is, admittedly a very large community, but -- for my own purposes -- I'll prioritize the people like this:

  1. Perl programmers
  2. I/T decision makers (CIO, CTO, I/T Project Managers, etc.)
  3. Other programmers
  4. Learners
  5. Job hunters
  6. Employers
  7. Academics & researchers
  8. Searchers
  9. Journalists (tech)
  10. Hobbyists & enthusiasts

Knowing that it's hard to satisfy everyone, I'd probably narrow that list down to the top 3-5 groups of people that the Perl community could realistically deliver a compelling message to (and here I'm thinking specifically of Perl.org), e.g.:

  1. Perl programmers ('cause we don't want to lose the community we have)
  2. I/T decision makers ('cause we want to make it easier to grow the community)
  3. Other programmers, learners, hobbyists & enthusiasts ('cause we want to continue to promote Perl outside the choir)
  4. Job hunters and employers ('cause people got to pay the bills)

(Have others to add to the list, or a different prioritization? Please pop them into the comments now while you're thinking about it.)

Matching the message to the people

The next step is to think through -- I would argue, for each and every "official" Perl Web site, but most urgently for Perl.org -- what is the message to deliver to each of these priority groups of people? What can each group do to support, and to advance the mission of, the Perl community? And what are each of these groups of people looking to the Perl community for -- e.g., updates, comparisons, case studies, leaning material, etc. -- and how can these be highlighted so they are easy to find?

Although submitting some "content tweaks" to Perl.org is a great start, I'm still going to advocate for nothing short of a reinvention of the Perl ecosystem. (How would we feel if Perl 6 was merely some "tweaks" to Perl 5?) And, to do that will require input from far and wide: from the Perl community and from outside, from friends and frenemies. But, right now, the most burning question of all for me is: Where does the Perl online ecosystem need to be in five years, and how do we set a foundation today that will support and advance that vision?

The comments are open.

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