Decent and Not Scary

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Forbes recently mentioned R, the open-source data analysis software, as a name you need to know in 2011, and this prompted a non-IT employee — with a comp-sci background — working in the insurance sector to share his story about managing R adoption for a group of about 30 business analysts with minimal programming background:

Programming in the business world is screwed up beyond all imagination. The more money a given application is responsible for, the more likely it is that it’s a house-of-cards (pun intended for MVS nerds). They’re always mishmashes of COBOL, SAS, DFSORT, and random proprietary languages that have never been the subject of a third-party book, and were sold to a company that was sold to a company that was sold to CA Technologies back in the 1970s. Whatever these languages can’t do is implemented through Escher-painting constructions of Excel references and VBA macros.

So, when people say that R has some issues, I say, “boo f—ing hoo”.

Most businesses suffer from an unnatural separation between IT and the business end. If business people want something programmed, they call IT. They don’t learn Python and do it themselves, because Python is a “programming language”. R is the first real language that business people are being encouraged to learn, because it’s an “analysis environment”. You have no idea how often I have to edit the word “programming” out of my presentations for this reason.

R will win in business because it’s decent, and it’s been around long enough to not be scary to managers. I’d be cautious about drawing comparisons to other languages that have undergone big design changes, because, as far as I can tell, the existence of a decent language in the business world is entirely without precedent.

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