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+# Haskell at Front Row
+
+## The mission
+
+Front Row Education was founded to change the way math education is done in a modern day classroom. In the web universe
+we have all sorts of great tools for tracking, analyzing and incentivising user behavior: complex analytics, rich data
+visualizations, a/b testing, studying usage patterns over time, cohort analysis, gamification etc. We figured: instead
+of using the above to have granny click on more ads, let's make these powerful techniques available to teachers,
+parents and school administrators to make math education more engaging and effective.
+
+Front Row allows schools to track student progress over time, identify areas of struggle, learn how to address them, all
+the while encouraging more quality practice. Learning math this way becomes a interactive and compelling experience,
+providing immediate feedback and adjusting content with every answer. As students practice, they generate rich data that
+school staff uses to continuously course-correct and fill in the gaps.
+
+Numerous experiments from past years show that making Front Row a regular part of a math classroom leads to
+improved conceptual understanding, a lower rate of students falling behind, and improved scores on state
+tests. As of today Front Row helps over a million students in their regular math practice, and has been used in over 30%
+of US K-8 schools.
+
+### Our journey to Haskell
+
+As of today Front Row uses Haskell for anything that needs to run on a server machine that is more complex than a 20
+line ruby script. This includes most web services, cron-driven mailers, command-line support tools, applications for
+processing and validating content created by our teachers and more. We've been using Haskell actively in production
+since 2014.
+
+At the time of the switch we were already familiar with the functional programming world. The central piece to the Front
+Row system is the JSON API used by both the student and teacher web experiences. I wrote the first version of the API in
+2013 in Clojure on top of the Ring/Compojure micro-framework. At the time I didn't have plans for the API to grow to
+serve the kind of size and traffic we see today: it was mostly a way for me to really dive into functional programming
+and understanding design challenges that other popular frameworks had to come across.
+
+Building your own framework is a fantastic learning experience, but it is also a significant commitment: without
+investing a ton of time and effort into the framework, you'll end up with something very bare-bones and hard to turn it
+into a production quality, fully-featured application. It takes innumerable iterations to make a framework extensible,
+modular and well maintained with a team of 1-3 developers, busy with dozens other tasks that a fast-moving startup
+demands.
+
+Clojure at the time didn't offer any alternatives as far as web frameworks were concerned, and we were already starting
+to see the inherent critical weakness behind building large modular systems in dynamically typed languages: refactoring
+is a serious pain and something you will avoid at all costs because it's hard to ensure you're not breaking anything.
+It's not that bad if you have ONE codebase that doesn't have dependencies, but once you get into two digits you're in
+for a bad time.
+
+Switching to Haskell and the Yesod framework seemed like a natural step forward: a strongly typed, purely functional,
+highly expressive language that would finally allow refactoring and moving fast to be painless. On top of it, a
+beautifully designed, extensible web framework with years of polish, one of the best high-performance web servers in the
+industry, extreme attention to type safety, and an all-star team of OSS contributors supporting it.
+
+Moving from Clojure to Haskell didn't feel like a massive jump: a lot of concepts translate pretty closely, although
+Haskell offers a much richer vocabulary than just maps and vecs. Monads, type classes, IO etc. eventually clicked, and
+it was smooth sailing after that.
+
+## Advantages of using Haskell
+
+Where does Haskell fit into all of this you say? As the development team of a small early stage edtech startup, we have
+two main goals:
+
+1. Iterate as fast as possible on new educational concepts, business model experiments and user feedback. Basically,
+ crank out as much code as possible while keeping the quality bar very high.
+2. Stretch our runway, be conservative with our very limited resources
+
+Haskell fits in pretty well with both of goals.
+
+### Static typing
+
+First of all, static typing is essential when it comes to keeping the system always in a working state. Coming from a
+dynamically typed universe, it's surprising how much time you can save on writing unit tests, because you are getting
+more certainty from the compiler: no more null exceptions, no type mismatches in function calls, no more forgetting
+about dealing with the empty list case etc. A whole class of pesky, incredibly common and banal bugs is eliminated from
+your work: you now have more bandwidth to worry about implementing user stories instead of obsessing that your
+application doesn't blow up due to sloppy oversight.
+
+I still remember one of my biggest Haskell/Yesod "aha" moments: not only does Yesod make sure that routes in your HTML
+are type-safe, but even image files linked in <img> tags are verified to exist on disk by the compiler. No .jpg, no
+build, it's that simple. It's a level of guarantee that dramatically increases your confidence in the code at barely
+any cost.
+
+### Modularity
+
+Modularity is another big one. We have a central module at the bottom of every one of our web applications, APIs,
+tools and cron binaries. This module wraps the database entities and the SQL logic necessary to access them. It also
+provides a lot of common shared functionality that should not be implemented more than once. Since the schema changes
+very aggressively, we need a way to make sure our applications are updated ASAP, we can't wait for things to blow up in
+production. Updating our entity definitions in that one module prevents every application built on top of it from
+compiling again until the change is dealt with.
+
+No more API call mismatches, no more using an old schema, no more apps running against an old deprecated version that
+can lead to breaking the db state. As many others have stated, Haskell is the first language out there that feels like
+it manages to achieve true modularity: purity and defining what context a function is allowed to run in ensure that a
+library call can lead to no surprises. Testing side-effect free functions is much simpler than continuously dealing
+with system state.
+
+### Efficiency
+
+Regarding the second point, why would Haskell stretch your runway? Simple. You're writing fewer bugs, you're
+reusing more code, new developers are causing less damage, and you have more room to deal with technical debt before it
+bites you. Purity and static types allow a team to aggressively refactor the codebase without having to worry that they
+might have forgotten to update something: a combination of a light layer of spec-style tests and a very picky compiler
+provide you with most of what you need to make refactoring a non-issue. More refactoring = more long-term productivity,
+higher team morale, more pride in one's work. Doing the same with a Ruby is as fun as pulling teeth.
+
+All of the above adds up to needing fewer developers, as less time is spent on maintenance, which ultimately equals a
+higher chance of your company getting somewhere thanks to the more frequent iterations. The more stuff you try, the more
+likely you are to find or expand that business mechanic that will carry your business forward.
+
+## Trouble in paradise
+
+This is not to say that things aren't all perfect though, and there's still plenty of room for improvement in the
+ecosystem.
+
+### Building
+
+Build times, especially once the whole constellation of Yesod and Persistent packages are brought into the mix, are not
+insignificant. It still takes a good 5-10 min to build our larger web application on our beefiest machines. There are
+optimizations that can be made in this space which we haven't adopted yet, such as caching already build object files to
+avoid having to re-compile them every time, so I'm confident this will be a non-issue in the nearby future, but it's
+still worth being aware of. GHC works hard, you need to provide it with enough juice or time to let it do its job.
+
+### Testing
+
+The testing frameworks out there are still fairly spartan from the developer experience standpoint. If you test Yesod
+with hspec, the premier BDD library for Haskell, there's currently no way to insert a bunch of rows into the database
+during fixtures and pass the results into the individual test cases. You have to wrap each test case in additional
+function calls to pull that off, adding more boilerplate to your tests.
+
+Additionally, it's not possible to find out which one of your specific test cases failed when checking for multiple
+conditions within the same "it" block. This means that if you need to check the state of the system after an HTTP
+request, you have no clue which one of the checks failed.
+
+Fortunately the developer(s) behind these libraries are responsive and happy to look into improvements. At the very
+least they're glad to point other developers in the right direction towards a PR.
+
+This has in general been my experience with the Haskell community: things aren't perfect, but folks are always looking
+for a way to improve the ecosystem and want Haskell to be the best language to develop in. People are trying to carve
+out their little slice of paradise, and are willing to put in the hard work to make it happen.
+
+### Docs
+
+Documentation is still not quite there and the initial onboarding of new developers is still rough. There are only so
+many snippets to Google for, compared to e.g. Ruby and Python. A lot of documentation is very barebones and requires
+diving straight into the source, which is fine for a proficient Haskeller, but not for an already terrified beginner.
+
+Many times I've witnessed senior developers get very frustrated when something wouldn't compile for hours and they
+couldn't find any help to move forward: be prepared to assist them before they get too grumpy. Some projects are better
+about it than other: Yesod and Persistent have extensive documentation and the FPComplete crew have numerous tutorials
+out there to help. New books come out once in a while with fresher snippets: the time-tested *Real World Haskell* is now
+fairly outdated, but the more recent *Beginning Haskell* is perfectly relevant. Many channels on IRC are available:
+ #haskell-beginners, #haskell and #yesod, although sometimes it can take work to get the answer you're looking for. More
+than once I heard the comment that documentation seems to be written by wizards for other wizards, and if you're a lowly
+initiate, you will have a rough time.
+
+I've personally had the privilege to help all of our developers skill up in Haskell and Yesod, and I've become a huge
+believer in the power of having someone more experienced guide you along the way. What took me several months of
+learning, mostly by myself, now takes our developers a couple of weeks of quality coaching. It took me a while to grok
+monads, type classes, type families etc., however, properly guided developers can figure it out in a matter of hours.
+Having a good teacher on your team will speed adoption within the organization immensely.
+
+### Strength in numbers
+
+We once experienced a very frustrating issue that got us thinking about our full commitment to Haskell as a company.
+
+When we switched our main API to Yesod (a full rewrite), we almost immediately ran into the issue the API would burn up
+close to 95% of available CPU on whatever AWS EC2 instance it was hosted on. We upgraded machines, just to see if we
+could cheat our way out of fixing this by throwing money at the problem, and even with a $600/mo 16 core box, the API
+still managed to flood all of the available cores with barely any traffic hitting it. I personally spent a good week
+banging my head against it: was it resource contention? Was it a really big oversight in one of my handlers? Was it
+misconfiguration? Was it something about the EC2 environment? Why doesn't this reproducing AT ALL under profiling? Was
+it our database connection pooling? I threw a lot of screenshots and code samples at the community both on Google Groups
+and IRC: nobody else had ever seen anything like it. Uh oh.. All the while customer support requests are pouring in,
+teachers are aggravated, the team is looking at the devs and "their latest shiny toy", tapping their collective foot.
+
+This is the part where picking exotic tooling for your stack can be a dangerous beast: "given enough eyeballs, all bugs
+are shallow", and when only a dozen teams out there are using your libraries at your scale, you are on your own when it
+comes to fixing issues. With Rails, there's enough volume of developers that there will be enough projects of every
+scale to burn-in your tool of choice. That's simply not the case with Haskell's usage numbers.
+
+What this means is that if you're planning to bet the farm on Haskell, you need to be ready and comfortable with the
+idea that you might have to get your hands dirty, might be the first person to figure out a solution to the problem
+you're seeing. This requirement is pretty much non-existent in .NET / ruby / python at al. Start small, start simple,
+let the tooling grow on you as you gain experience. Start with tools that aren't mission critical until you're more
+confident.
+
+### However..
+
+It bears mentioning that the above concerns are being actively addressed by the community and the state of things is
+rapidly improving:
+
+* Cabal, the Haskell package manager, was a real pain to work with just a few years ago and "cabal hell" is still part
+of Haskell vernacular. However, with sandboxes and consistent version snapshots provided by FPComplete as Stackage LTS,
+that problem has been mostly resolved.
+* Build times are slow, but the community is coming up with improvements such as halcyon that should alleviate things
+considerably.
+* Docs have gotten dramatically better over the past couple of years. There's been a big push towards keeping fresh,
+community-maintained, easy-to-follow and beginner-friendly instructions such as those provided by [Chris Allen's Learn
+Haskell](https://github.com/bitemyapp/learnhaskell). We now even have IRC channels tailored specifically for beginners,
+e.g. #haskell-beginners . Today newcomers become more productive much faster than they did a few years ago.
+* The community has been recently doing a better job at outreach and we've seen many new developers come make Haskell a
+permanent part of their toolbox. With more participants, tools get more fully-featured and more maintained.
+
+## Conclusion
+
+It's a very exciting time in the history of computing to jump on the Haskell train. Yes, the community is tiny and one
+might get little hand-holding compared to more popular ecosystems, however Haskell offers obvious benefits to software
+teams who can power through the initial pain period.
+
+Today Haskell offers some of the best tools around for delivering quality software quickly and reliably, minimizing
+maintenance cost while maximizing developer enjoyment. To me Haskell is that dream of "developer happiness" that we were
+promised many years ago by the Ruby community: I can write beautiful, short, expressive and readable code that will
+perform phenomenally and stand the test of time and continuous change. What more can I ask for?

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