A Conversation with Hadley Wickham – the useR! 2014 interview

August 11, 2014
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(This article was first published on DataScience.LA » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Hadley Wickham is famous. He’s not Kardashian famous, but walking around useR! and seeing the community’s reaction to him, there’s no question, he’s ‘R famous’. If you have the good fortune to see his talks, tutorials, or sessions in person, you owe it to yourself to do so. He projects depth and wisdom with a booming voice, which combines with a hard-won confidence brought about by years of honing his craft and developing his expertise. He takes as much time as is needed to answer questions, listens to every single bit of feedback and succeeds in making you feel that what you say indeed matters. Hadley Wickham has poise. It’s also quite obvious, if you watch him for long enough, that this fame suits him like an itchy sweater made by a loving grandparent. It brings warmth and it comes from a place of love, but it’s always a little uncomfortable regardless of how well it may fit.

I’m definitely an introvert. – Hadley Wickham

Hadley and I had a long ranging interview at useR 2014, shown above, discussing R’s strengths and revealing its weaknesses together. We reveal Hadley’s evil plans for world domination, as well as his not-so-evil plans to help users better manage their workflow. He also discusses his approach for the design of APIs and interfaces, including his thought process and personal experiences which have led him to this philosophy. We get a peek at his regular workflow, and how he continues to create such fantastic packages and modules for release. Hadley gives us some fantastic insight into what advice he would give himself when he was starting out, and what advice he would give someone starting out in the field today. Finally, we talk about what the future holds for R the software, as well as R the community. I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed making it!

How We Got Here

When the opportunity arose to attend useR 2014, I was ecstatic. My favorite new programming language was having it’s yearly conference practically in my backyard. This was serendipity, and I was going to take full advantage of it! The opportunity quickly morphed beyond my wildest dreams, however. Thanks to the amazing R and data science community in Los Angeles, and because some things only seem to happen in LA, DataScience.LA contributor Jeff Weakley brought up the idea: “What if we tape a few interviews with selected attendees?”

It was a great idea, since I already knew that I wanted to see these videos before they were even filmed! As we started discussing the project we realized that in order to tape interviews of attendees, we would need an interviewer. As the resident extrovert in our organization, I volunteered to lead the charge and interview those useR attendees willing to sit down with us. How hard could it be, after all? Interviewing is just asking questions and talking, and I’m already pretty solid at both of those. My first interview of the conference was Hadley Wickham, what could go wrong?

“How to Interview Someone”

Is a pretty awful feeling to start researching 24 hours before you have the opportunity to interview anyone – much less interviewing a set of luminaries in a field you love. Much less “the guy.” But yet, here I was, a single day before I was set to sit down with Hadley Wickham, trying to figure out how to conduct an interesting interview. In case you’re curious, here’s a helpful 2 page PDF I found. The basic advice was pretty straight forward:

  1. Be prepared
  2. Make the subject comfortable

I knew I wasn’t going to be prepared enough, and I had no idea how to make any of my subjects comfortable. UseR 2014 was going to be a long scary week.

I am relatively new to the R community, but I have been a programmer in a great many communities for a long time. Fortunate programming communities are able to find their Hadley, someone who comes in to an established ecosystem bringing new ideas with the boundless energy and intelligence to elegantly implement them, be it DHH for Ruby or Miyagawa for Perl. It has also always struck me as odd that often times, the way we thank these kinds of luminaries is by hoisting them into the Land of the Extrovert. Their fame, made through asynchronous email and forum communication and with patch after patch of lovingly handcrafted code, leaves them rewarded by placement on a public pedestal for all to see and regularly made the center of unyielding attention.

And yet, here we were, sitting next to each other on a cloudy day at UCLA’s campus, Hadley with a patient smile, and me, hoping I would remember my list of questions and that I wouldn’t throw up on him.

My Introduction to the Hadleyverse

I was originally introduced to R through my wife’s doctoral dissertation she completed in 2009. As a “programmer” I didn’t get it. Why on earth would you index a data structure with a $? Why would you “attach” a data frame? Clearly this programming environment was not for “serious work”, was my immediate decision, and I promptly filed it away. Like most humans, I am historically awful at predicting the future. This was no exception.

As my own personal career began to shift from being a “regular programmer” to what some would call data science, I felt my trusty and reliable tools had begun to fall short and had started looking for solutions. The limitations of the code -> execute -> read results loop constrained my ability to explore ever larger data sets, and the ability to visualize complex relationships was laughable. As part of a General Assembly Data Science course, I was introduced to ggplot2 and my relationships with R, data, and exploration, were forever changed. I had been introduced to the Hadleyverse.

As I explored ggplot2 for visualization, to plyr for transformation, it became clear. From tidy data to lubridate, it seemed like this gentleman, Hadley Wickham, had addressed all the major problems in “programming R”, and had made it a kinder, less shocking ecosystem to explore. It made it easy for my concept of R to transform from an also-ran to one of my favorite programming ecosystems of all time.

Stay tuned for more interviews like this one, as we will be releasing one per week over the next few months!

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