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Larry Wall

      . . . creator of Perl, a computer programming "glue" language. Mr. Wall is a leader in the open systems software movement and a linguist. In addition to creating Perl (now in 6.0,) Mr. Wall also authored other popular free programs available for Linux and UNIX, including the rn news reader and the ubiquitous patch program. He has worked at Unisys, JPL, NetLabs and Seagate and is currently a Fellow with O'Reilly & Associates, publisher of his books on Perl.

Excerpts3:37 secs

[This Program was recorded October 14, 2000, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

      A truly great computer programmer is lazy, impatient and full of hubris, says Larry Wall. Laziness drives one to work very hard to avoid future work for a future self. Impatience has the same endgame. And hubris is required for the newest Promethean fire -- inventing computer languages.

      Larry Wall, the man with this unusual prescription, is a leader in the open source software movement, which includes Linux. He's the linguist who created Perl, the programming language which glues together much of the Internet.

      Computer programming is not about computers, Mr. Wall insists. It's about humans. What drives Mr. Wall and others in the open source software movement? They have a sense of purpose: Improve the lot of humankind. To do that, they create software -- FREE software. And they share.

      Mr. Wall sees a basic philosophical shift in the computer industry. Bigger companies which have traditionally kept their source code propriety are beginning to open up. Doing so has many benefits, according Mr. Wall and the growing numbers of people working (for free) in the open source software world. There are already many millions of Linux users, roughly a million Perl users, he reports. And the numbers keep growing.

      Competition and cooperation are working hand-in-glove in this emerging part of the computer world, he says. Programmers have always shared code, Mr. Wall assures us, but recently they have realized that separate open source movements are merging into a single open source movement. His only concern is that this may stifle other good ideas. In the world of ideas, he is confident, diversity is as vital to growth as it is in the biological realm.

      Mr. Wall reminds us that we invented computers to help us and they are our willing slaves. So why not let them do more work so people's lives can be more creative and joyful? That notion spurs him on in dreaming up new tools -- languages -- with which to do so. Perl is a good example. He describes Perl as a "glue" language. Perhaps he needed his special combination of lazy and impatient to invent Perl. It was born while Mr. Wall was at Unisys, trying to glue together a bicoastal configuration management system over a 1200 baud encrypted link using a hacked-over version of Netnews.

      Since then, Mr. Wall and legions of people in the open source software movement have evolved Perl toward the 6.0 release on which the Perl community is currently working under Mr. Wall's leadership. Perl's two slogans in addressing software programming challenges do a good job summarizing Mr. Wall's approach: "There's more than one way to do it" and "Easy things should be easy and hard things should be possible." Larry Wall expects people to program Perl joyfully because they have choices which allow them to be creative.

      Helping people help each other is Larry Wall's life-long calling. Perhaps we should rethink laziness, impatience and hubris.

Conversation 1

Larry Wall describes the concept of open source software to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Mr. Wall compares the American threads of material acquisitiveness and the tradition of helping others.

Conversation 2

Assuring us that people have always given away their computer codes, Mr. Wall remembers how networking worked before the Internet. He describes what he believes is the beginning of a widespread, basic philosophical shift away from keeping source codes proprietary. He expands, with examples of the symbiosis between open source software and corporate interests. Mr. Wall explains the strengths of the Linux operating system. He contrasts developmental processes which have diverged to the (convergent) development of his programming language, Perl.

Conversation 3

Leadership is central to keeping a process from diverging, Mr. Wall believes, offering examples from other tree versions of UNIX and from Linux itself, where companies as well as individual programmers continue to share their work. He maintains there is no reason to force a process into "either-or" prematurely and examines the implications both of being competitive and cooperative. He expresses his belief that people were created to be creative. Mr. Wall explains how he designed Perl for people to have easy access to it. He asserts that an underlying humility and willingness to share must accompany a certain arrogance that seems to accompany computer program design. Learning, he has found, goes both ways when one shares one's code.

Conversation 4

Continuing with the subject of leadership, Mr. Wall asserts that in American programming circles, one has to earn one's leadership role. He contrasts his style, working with volunteers, to traditional corporate leadership. Mr. Wall gives the evolutionary history of his creation, Perl. He describes what it takes to create a really good "glue" language. Computer programming, he insists, does not have to do with computers, it has to do with humans. He expands, with examples drawn from his background as a linguist. He shares the first of Perl's slogans.

Conversation 5

Mr. Wall jokes about the three chief virtues of a computer programmer and gives Perl's other slogan. He decries the Procrustean approach many programmers take, offering the open source alternative and the UNIX/Linux mindset. Confident that there will always be a knowledge gap, he urges tearing down artificial barriers like proprietary software. He acknowledges that Third World access to computers is a tremendous problem. Mr. Wall insists that context is everything. He says renouncing control is vital to long term development of computer languages and explains why. He explains the purpose of the open source approach, with reasons why he is so eager to share this approach.

Conversation 6

The inventor of Linux is credited. Mr. Wall sees a danger in the Linux culture overpowering other incipient cultures. He voices his concern that the world of ideas requires diversity and means by which to select the good ideas to keep improvisation going. He explains how people make livings in the land of free software. He describes Perl's camel.


We appreciate Larry Wall making a special effort to introduce us to the world of open source software in the midst of his admirers at the 4th Annual Linux Showcase & Conference.

Special thanks to Monica Ortiz, Marketing Manager of USENIX and Judy Diaz who together, in spite of "convention laryngitis," were the embodiment of helpfulness in making this conversation possible.

We also thank David Russell for showing us the importance of the "open source" movement and for suggesting Larry Wall as one of the movements leaders.

Related Links:
Learn more about Larry Wall, his Perl Program Repair Shop and Red Flags or website redesign/website enhancement/site security audits/Internet business strategy.
We visited with Larry at the 4th Annual Linux Showcase & Conference in Atlanta in October, 2000. It was sponsored by USENIX , the Advanced Computing Systems Association, and the Atlanta Linux Showcase, in cooperation with Linux International.
O'Reilly & Associates publishes Larry's books on Perl.

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