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From the .NET Developer's Journal Archives: A Talk with the Father of C#

Derek Ferguson's Exclusive 2002 Interview with Danish-Born Software Genius Anders Hejlsberg

In this classic codehead-to-codehead interview with the editor-in-chief of .NET Developer's Journal, Microsoft's Anders Hejlsberg discusses the origins and the future of C#. The interview appeared in .NET Developer's Journal, Vol 1 issue 1 - in October 2002.

.NETDJ: Why did you choose to work for Microsoft?
AH: I started at Microsoft in 1996. I started after 13 years at Borland and had increasingly had some disagreements with management there about the direction in which the company should go. I felt that they should focus more on tools for developers. Actually, Borland is catering more to developers now anyhow.

One big motivating factor in choosing to work for Microsoft was that Microsoft is a technology-driven company that has a tremendous impact on the industry.

.NETDJ: Can you give us any insight into how Microsoft came to choose you to lead their C# development effort?
AH: I was in the right place at the right time and had the right qualifications. Also, my team and I were able to articulate a vision of exactly what kind of language we wanted to build.

.NETDJ: How was C# developed, in relationship to the development of the rest of .NET. For example, was C# developed prior to the runtime using native code or simultaneously using prerelease bits? What special challenges and/or opportunities did this present?
AH: I'm a strong proponent of tackling any development project as a whole. When you sit down to program for example, you think in terms of a single platform - not an editor, a compiler, the libraries, etc. So we did the same thing with C# and .NET. They were built at the same time by two teams working very closely together with a great deal of cross-pollination between the two in terms of ideas for the platform as a whole.

.NETDJ: How did this affect VB?
AH: VB comes from a different starting point. They have the world's largest existing user base, so that fact had to be #1, #2, and #3 as their design goals. We were in the fortunate position of being able to start off with a completely clean slate.

.NETDJ: You just announced today that you will be adding anonymous methods to C#. Why are there still no anonymous classes?
AH: Typically, if you need to write any kind of anonymous code, you just need to write a single method in-line. I would argue that if you need to build any greater amount of functionality perhaps you should consider taking all of that code and making it into an actual class of the first order. This isn't to rule out possible future addition of anonymous classes to C#, though.

.NETDJ: You just returned from sabbatical - did you enjoy it? Did you do anything interesting?
AH: Well, I got to spend a lot of time with my kids and go back home to visit Denmark. And even to enjoy the summer here in Seattle?and I didn't think about work at all. It wasn't even hard!

.NETDJ: What was the thought process behind the name C#?
AH: We definitely wanted to have the "C" in the name, because that is the language family in which we wanted our language to live. So, we were thinking about various pre- and post-fixes that we could append. There were several different ideas going around, but ultimately C# just stuck. In retrospect, I'm really happy with the name.

.NETDJ: Now that C# is an ECMA standard, what is the process for enhancing the language going forward?
AH: Over time it is our intention to submit everything to ECMA. The only public commitment we've made so far, though, is that we will submit the new generics language feature in January of next year. However, this is completely contingent on our development schedule being met. A lot of the generics stuff, for example, is already available for viewing on the Microsoft research Web site though - for the very anxious developers.

The exact versioning of C# is completely up to the ECMA committee. Remember, Microsoft only has one vote among many on this panel. Having said this, my view of standards is that they establish a baseline that you adhere to, but you should be free to innovate above and beyond those standards.

.NETDJ: When and how will developers see the new language features you just announced for C#?
AH: These additions will be packaged as a part of some future version of VS.NET, but not Everett. We are targeting VS for Yukon, but we can't commit to everything.

A developer won't have to do anything to actually use these features, though. There will be compiler switches to allow developers to turn them off if they don't like them, but otherwise, it will be completely transparent to them.

.NETDJ: What about mobile devices?
AH: It isn't clear yet whether or not any or all of these features will actually make it into the .NET Compact Framework. Some of these are just language features, but generics [for example] involve considerable runtime work and therefore might not make it in.

.NETDJ: If C# didn't exist, what would be your favorite programming language and why?
AH: If C# didn't exist, I would be hard at work building it! It is hard to say - I don't really have a favorite language. I look for inspiration from many other languages. For example, with C# we were inspired by C, C++, Java, Objective C, and pure OO languages like Smalltalk. Pascal, which is obviously my own background, has also had a huge influence on me.

.NETDJ: Were there any bits in the original designs for C# that got dropped along the way before release?
AH: There were things that we had hoped to do that we had to push off - like anonymous methods - simply because we didn't have time. It's not like we had entire features that we...well, we were playing around with a string literal syntax that got yanked out...but those were just some silly ideas that we tried out with no real serious intentions of ever using them.

.NETDJ: How can a case-insensitive language like VB distinguish between two methods (for example) in a C# class that are differentiated only by case?
AH: If you're designing a class that is never intended for outside use, you don't need to worry about this. On the other hand, if you're building a component for use by other languages, then you have to turn on Common Language Specification (CLS) compliance to make sure that you don't have methods that differ only in case. Then you'll get warnings about this kind of stuff.

.NETDJ: Well, isn't that kind of taking a "lowest common denominator" approach to language interoperability?
AH: The CLS is case insensitive because it is like a lowest common denominator subset of all the possible features of all .NET languages. However, .NET itself is not taking a lowest common denominator approach to languages, because you always have the freedom to go outside the CLS if you choose to do so. For example, CLS is not capable of doing pointers, even though there are C# and C++ language features that will support this.

.NETDJ: A lot has been made of the fact that C#, unlike Java, allows direct memory access and is therefore - allegedly - "unsafe." Could you explain the thinking on that design decision?
AH: Well, direct memory access is unsafe, and because it is unsafe, the security system knows that it is unsafe. Therefore you will never be allowed to use code like that unless you are in a situation where you are completely trusted. For example, code that is downloaded off the Internet will never do this.

Now, just because Java doesn't have an easy syntax for direct memory access doesn't mean that it can't be done. Java has JNI, which can accomplish this. They've just made it much harder to use and, therefore, even more prone to misuse!

In C# we've taken an approach that says, "Hey, people are going to do this - whether we stick our heads in the sand about it our not." There is ugliness in the world. We can do a much better job for developers by reasoning the safest way to approach it and integrating it into the language rather than making it an afterthought.

.NETDJ: How do you balance simplicity versus power in designing a programming language?
AH: It depends on how you measure simplicity. If you measure simplicity through poverty-of-features, then that's one way of looking at it! But there's also such a thing as conceptual simplicity, which is something that I think is much more important.

The ultimate measure is whether or not it is simple for developers to create software using the language. That said, the two often go hand-in-hand. LISP is a simple language, but that doesn't mean that users just intuitively grasp it. It is very hard to write down a formula for what constitutes a simple language; it is always a compromise.

Our feedback is that people are not finding this a complicated language. Even though we have a complex specification, I doubt that many people actually have to read it.

.NETDJ: Why did you choose to require that brackets be after data types rather than after variable names in array declarations?
AH: Of course, Java supports them in both places. We said, though, "Well, this is a funky C-ism." Worse yet, it means something different in C than it does in Java. (I seem to recall the Java designers saying that they wished they'd kept it out in some recent interview - but I may be wrong about that.) In any case, the argument I would make is that we should keep the size with the type, rather than with the variable, because the size is a modifier of the type - not the variable name; otherwise, it is too easy to confuse the dimension of an array with a parameter to a function.

.NETDJ: What is your preferred development methodology - XP, RUP, etc.?
AH: I'm not a process guy when it comes to the methodology - so I can't say that I really have a favorite. I think there are a lot of interesting aspects to Extreme Programming, like the unit-testing that I showed in my talk today.

Designing a language is not the same as writing a program. I can talk about the methodology that we had for designing C#. I believe in assembling a small group of technically capable people - we had about four people who worked on it for two years spending somewhere around eight hours a week in design meetings - and it was a great experience. We still have those meetings with pretty much the same people and it has been a lot of fun.

.NETDJ: In setting out to create a new language, what were your initial design guidelines?
AH: We went to Microsoft and we said, "We think that the company needs this." It's not like Bill called us and said "Hey, I need a new language!" We heard from customers that we needed something that wasn't as low-level and complicated as COM...and Web services were also starting to happen. So, we decided that we needed to make a break from the past and get a dramatic jump in developer productivity that would give developers better guarantees about security, performance, etc.

.NETDJ: What do you see as the single most compelling strength of .NET for developers?
AH: Productivity. But that can serve as an umbrella for applications getting built faster, being more robust, being easier to maintain and extend. But all in all, it just means that you wind up getting more done with the same amount of resources. And we definitely see this - how developers are so much more productive using .NET instead of earlier tools.

.NETDJ: Can't developers write more efficient code in C++?
AH: I guess this is true if you assume infinite time and resources. However, whenever you give people something, you are trading it off against something else. There is definitely a cost to using a managed execution environment, but - because you make fewer mistakes - you get to spend more time thinking about your programming rather than about your dangling pointers and such. It all hinges on the fact that time and resources are not infinite.

.NETDJ: Why no checked exceptions in C#?
AH: Well, I wish I knew of a good way to put them in where a lot of problems don't ensue. There is the C++ way where you can declare them, but the compiler doesn't enforce them - but today most people expect compilers to enforce their rules for them. Then there's Java's way, which is great for small programs.

However, to begin with, there's a serious versioning problem in that once you declare that a method throws an exception, it is set in stone for all of its descendants. Another observation I had just looking at a lot of Java code is that, if you believe in this discipline, fine, but a lot of people don't believe in this. So, when they wind up using this, they just wrap everything in a big "try" block and put an empty "catch" block after it. This gets worse and worse as there are more and more exceptions involved.

My final observation is that programming for the existence of exceptions is different from catching exceptions. It is relatively rare that you actually want to handle an exception. For example, if you're working at a very low level in an IO stream, it isn't your business to handle any exception; you might throw it, but then your list of thrown exceptions winds up getting huge.

I would love to know of a correct solution - but I don't. Right now, as I tally up the factors, it seems like adding checked exceptions would just be trading one problem for another.

.NETDJ: What do you think about the whole "evil type conversion" debate surrounding C#'s approach to automatic type casting?
AH: In the vast majority of cases, making everything into an object makes a lot of sense. I would put this up as one of our key features and design goals. It is subtle, but extremely useful. You can think of everything as an object and just be done with it.

I know many professors who are teaching computer science courses with .NET who think this is great because it is so much easier to understand than how primitives are different from objects.

.NETDJ: Have you gotten a chance to play with either Rotor or Mono? If so, what did you think?
AH: Not a whole lot. I've looked at the code and e-mailed a bit with Miguel de Icaza, since he's writing the Mono compiler. It is, of course, gratifying to see C# used so many places. The best thing that can happen in all of this is that people appreciate the work you do and find it useful.

More Stories By Derek Ferguson

Derek Ferguson, founding editor and editor-in-chief of .Net Developer's Journal, is a noted technology expert and former Microsoft MVP.

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