Tuesday, February 22, 2022 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Why Lattner Left the Swift Core Team

Chris Lattner (Hacker News):

To answer your question, the root cause of my decision to leave the core team is a toxic environment in the meetings themselves. The catalyst was a specific meeting last summer: after being insulted and yelled at over WebEx (not for the first time, and not just one core team member), I decided to take a break. I was able to get leadership to eventually discuss the situation with me last Fall, but after avoiding dealing with it, they made excuses, and made it clear they weren’t planning to do anything about it. As such, I decided not to return. They reassure me they “want to make sure things are better for others in the future based on what we talked about” though.

On Swift Evolution, my original intention was to continue participating in the forums, but after several discussions generating more heat than light, when my formal proposal review comments and concerns were ignored by the unilateral accepts, and the general challenges with transparency working with core team, I decided that my effort was triggering the same friction with the same people, and thus I was just wasting my time.

[…]

It is obvious that Swift has outgrown my influence, and some of the design premises I care about (e.g. “simple things that compose”) don’t seem in vogue any more.

[…]

I think that Swift is a phenomenal language and has a long and successful future ahead, but it certainly isn’t a community designed language, and this isn’t ambiguous.

I think many initially hoped that Lattner would have a BDFL sort of role, but after he left the company that became incompatible with Apple’s desire to drive the design in support of its private internal plans. At present, the only Core Team member from outside of Apple seems to be Saleem Abdulrasool of Google Brain.

Previously:

11 Comments

BDFL is an interesting (and even amusing) term I wasn't familiar with. I wonder if you'd consider linking to its definition, although it does show up easily in a web search.

BDFL is a very common term tech world. Especially in Open Source.

Sort of strange he was shouted at by another Apple employees. Just shown what the current state of Apple is like.

Yeah, because Steve Jobs would never shout at anyone.

> Yeah, because Steve Jobs would never shout at anyone.

Steve wasn’t afraid of saying something wasn’t good enough, and would not sugar coat it. He could definitely eviscerate someone if they screwed up. But the range of products that came out of Apple in his second tenure — and even his first — showed he also knew how to listen when necessary and collaborate.

The famous first talk at MacWorld when he was asked about OpenDoc shows this in detail.

For someone to shout down a proven expert demonstrates an inability to constructively debate to a conclusion, an unwillingness to accept other views, and a selfish entitlement such that one felt happy not only to prevent someone express themselves, but also to prevent others in the meeting hearing what they had to say.

For the project lead to permit this on a regular basis shows a disregard for the personal integrity of the team members, an inability to resolve conflict, and an inability to lead a team to a successful conclusion. That it happens at such a level leads credence to the number of complaints we’ve heard in the last 18 months from departing Apple employees.

Frankly, Apple sounds less and less like a nice place to work; and more and more like a place where talented workers burn out and give up, as Johnny I’ve had before Steve Jobs found him.

Steve wasn’t afraid of saying something wasn’t good enough, and would not sugar coat it. He could definitely eviscerate someone if they screwed up. But the range of products that came out of Apple in his second tenure — and even his first — showed he also knew how to listen when necessary and collaborate.

The famous first talk at MacWorld when he was asked about OpenDoc shows this in detail.

For someone to shout down a proven expert demonstrates an inability to constructively debate to a conclusion

It’s funny that you would bring OpenDoc up, because that isn’t really what happened there. In that very speech, Steve defends the engineers, and implicitly those who worked on OpenDoc as well. So he’s saying they were experts. He blames marketing and/or middle management on its failure: it’s not that the tech wasn’t interesting; it’s that nobody could make a good case on whom it’s ultimately for.

And I don’t think you can objectively judge that. This approach worked for Steve because he had a vision of where he wanted to take Apple, and that vision did not include OpenDoc, in part because he didn’t think it was feasible for a company as relatively small (at the time) as Apple to actually establish OpenDoc as a serious contender against competing approaches such as OLE. There is an alternate reality where the opposite happens: Apple doubles down on OpenDoc, makes it a first-class citizen for the Mac OS X era, and applications take advantage to it to such an extent that Windows looks bad.

Keep in mind that, in the very same speech, Steve defended his Java strategy. That strategy went absolutely nowhere. It made sense for the time (1997), but by the time Mac OS X had shipped, it really messed up their focus (Classic, Carbon, Cocoa and Java?), and it got less and less love. WebObjects was ported to it for no real good reason, but almost everything else from NeXT stuck to Objective-C.

Now, a quarter century later, we have Swift. Again, there is no objective measurement on whether Lattner is right or not. We don’t even have much insight on what those meetings were like; we weren’t there. He created the language, but he started doing so many years ago, and I would question whether he is still “the expert”. Priorities have shifted, actual usage of Swift has shifted (for example, using it on web servers went nowhere, as did third-party machine learning efforts, so far), and the language has grown in some ways anticipated and in other ways not. I suspect he wasn’t very involved in any of SwiftUI or its precursors (such as Combine), for example. Is he an expert on writing programming language? Yes. Is he the preeminent “proven expert” on Swift? Well, he was once, but maybe not any more.

None of this is to defend whatever yelling may have occurred in meetings. But whether you believe Steve Jobs would’ve made a smarter call here or not (I see little reason to believe that, as Steve Jobs didn’t exactly concern himself with programming languages) doesn’t really matter: his behavior, too, was often unacceptable in a modern workplace. He could’ve been the most competent manager in the world (and perhaps he was); it still wouldn’t make the many anecdotes acceptable.

That it happens at such a level leads credence to the number of complaints we’ve heard in the last 18 months from departing Apple employees.

I really see no relation here at all. The Swift core team isn’t HR, nor is it upper management.

Frankly, Apple sounds less and less like a nice place to work

A company where rumor has it your CEO might fire you on the spot if you run into them in the elevator and don’t immediately have a great 10-second answer to “so, what are you working on, and while answering, keep in mind that I’m your boss’s boss’s boss” doesn’t sound “like a nice place to work” either.

Which company is that elevator rumor from? Tesla?

@Kristoffer It’s an old story, probably from the late 90s before Tesla existed.

Thanks, never heard about it before. But I must say it seems a bit too juicy to be true.

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