Domo arigato, Mr. Smalltalk
My adventure as an evangelist
My adventure began in 2007 when a dear friend of mine from Cherniak Software, a major Smalltalk shop, persuaded me to try Smalltalk. After many years of programming in C and C++ and FORTRAN and Tandem TAL and assembly language, I found that Smalltalk was a breath of fresh air! It was a beautifully simple and elegant language. It had a beautifully simple and elegant programming environment. It was astonishingly easy to learn, and yet it was unbelievably powerful (uncharacteristic of a simple instructional language intended to teach children how to program).
Years later, after I saw how Smalltalk was languishing in the marketplace, I decided to found Smalltalk Renaissance, a marketing and promotional nonprofit. I served as its Campaign Director during 2015.
I found it difficult to engage the Smalltalk community. After many years and many failed attempts to popularize Smalltalk, most had felt beaten down into submission. They began to rationalize that Smalltalk didn’t need to be popular. The community was smug and insular, and that was just fine with them.
I can’t say I blame them. Smalltalk has had a storied history and a lot of water under the bridge. But after all these years, it just didn’t seem worth getting their hopes up again.
Nevertheless, I was determined to give it another shot. It was no less than this great language deserved.
My strategy was simple. For years, people had written numerous technical articles and blogs, and given numerous technical talks at conferences, demonstrating what you could do with Smalltalk and how you could do it. People had been contributing to various open source Smalltalk projects, in particular, the Pharo project, helping to improve the platform and making it more useful for businesses. However, the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy wasn’t working. Appealing to people on an intellectual basis wasn’t working. Smalltalk was still being ignored. What needed to be done, I surmised, was to appeal to people on an emotional basis, the way it’s done in marketing and advertising. Smalltalk needed to promote itself in the same way that Apple promotes iPhone and Mac computers, in the same way Donald Trump promotes himself as a Presidential contender.
Smalltalk needed to make a lot of noise in social media (not so much in conventional media because we don’t have the financial resources to do so). It needed to keep the marketing message very simple and highly focussed. It needed to bend the truth a little bit. It should appear flashy and exciting; Smalltalk had to attract as many eyeballs as possible. I had to take on the role of Steve Jobs, master marketer.
One of the key pieces of the campaign was a Smalltalk programming competition open to high school students. In order to raise money for the competition, I created a Kickstarter for which I put in enormous time and energy. Alas, the Kickstarter failed to raise the necessary funds. It was a major disappointment, but I didn’t give up.
The largest component of the campaign was this blog at Medium. Nearly every article was also posted to Hacker News and Reddit (Programming subreddit), as well as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn.
I was pleasantly surprised when the inaugural article, “The Smalltalk Revolution,” amassed over 17,800 views making it the fourth most viewed article I had ever published. Apparently, people were most interested in Smalltalk’s destiny!
The greatest breakthrough, however, came when I was invited to write this article for TechBeacon (a “digital hub” for developer and tech professionals sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise). Within 3 days of publication, it rose to become the third most popular article on their Popular page (an article can only stay there for two months).
The following week, Hacker News offered to let me repost the article because they felt it deserved greater exposure. I did, and the response went through the roof! The Livefyre “Live Listener Count” for my article (“X people listening”) skyrocketed from around 120 to over 340 (TechBeacon articles rarely have a Live Listener Count of more than 30). Very shortly, the total number of views for this article surpassed 11,000. Remember, TechBeacon is a publication that targets businesses and IT professionals. This was the kind of marketing reach I had been hoping for in the campaign.
The Hacker News posting gathered 115 points, more than any other Hacker News posting I’ve ever seen! This was encouraging because Hacker News is a social news website that focuses on computer science and entrepreneurs (an ideal demographic for Smalltalk!).
So, is the campaign working? It’s too early to tell, but I am sanguine. It may take several years for Smalltalk to show up on language ranking indices such as TIOBE and IEEE Spectrum. A few years ago, Smalltalk was in the Top 50 at TIOBE, but it dropped off the list and has not returned. If Smalltalk does return to the Top 50, then I’ll consider that a success. Certainly, many more people today are aware that Smalltalk is alive and kicking than two years ago. Thousands of people at Reddit are aware. Thousands at Medium and Hacker News and Quora, too. More than 28,000 readers of TechBeacon are aware. It’s impossible to gauge the reach in social media like Twitter and Facebook, but it should be roughly consistent with the other numbers. I can tell you that the TechBeacon article was shared on social media 161 times.
Lately, I’ve been spending a great deal of time on Quora answering questions. At every opportunity, I insert Smalltalk into the answer. You wouldn’t believe how many questions there are about how to learn programming, or what programming language a beginner should start with. With a total of 3.3 million answer views (and over 600,000 in the past month alone), a great many people are seeing Smalltalk mentioned in these answers. The battle for hearts and minds continues.
It’s been a pleasure and an honour to be a Smalltalk evangelist. This campaign has given me a wonderful adventure in marketing, and a great opportunity to write many articles, respond to many comments, answer many questions, and generally spread the word about my favourite programming language. If I can persuade even a few thousand people to try Smalltalk programming, it will have been worth the effort. One of those people may digitally revolutionize the world of tomorrow, again! That’s the power of Smalltalk.