Guido van Rossum On Python and Diversity in Open Source
Written by Mike James   
Monday, 06 May 2019

In a wide ranging conversation Guido van Rossum outlines how and why he initiated the Python language and why he resigned as BDFL after 28 years. He also discusses the issue of diversity in open source communities with interviewer Swapnil Bhartiya, the founder of the TFiR website.

Although the video was only posted on TFiR, and published on You Tube on May 4, 2019 the interview took place last September during Oracle Code One, which Van Rossum was attending to receive one of the five 2018 Oracle Groundbreaker Awards.


In the interview Bhartiya first asks how Van Rossum came to create Python. Admitting that his account might be "revisionist" Van Rossum explains that he was working as a programmer on a project called Amoeba - a microkernel-based distributed system - with which Andrew Tannenbaum was also involved. Van Rossum and others were using a very primitive Amoeba cluster, built out of MicroVAX machines for which they wanted to write utilities. The two options were shell scripts - "a crafty port of the Unix v7 shell, so not very powerful" or C for which which you had to confront issues like implementing your own I/O library for reading lines from a file or your own memory allocation - which he describes as "very tedious". Continuing the story he says:

I thought if there was a programming language that was somewhere in between Shell and C then we would be much more productive....what we need is an interpreted programming language that has a compact, concise syntax but is more readable and has more features that allow you to write larger programs.

and goes on to explain how he used his previous experience of  a language called ABC, using its good features and replacing others with better ones. He allowed three months for doing it, using both some work time and also his spare time in evenings and at weekends and at the end of that period there was the first prototype implementation of Python and it was put to use immediately. However, it quickly became more popular outside the Amoeba project than within it and that "started the ball rolling".

Van Rossum then talks about his resignation from the role of BDFL - Benevolent Dictator For Life, a title bestowed on him way back in the history of the project, also noting the D was never taken seriously and that the role had been to moderate between different points of view and adopt the majority decisions wherever possible. While he doesn't actually talk about the specific controversy immediately prior to his decision step down as leader of the project, he does admit the it was the debate after his decision in regard to PEP 572 that sparked it. Not just the debate but the way it was conducted on social media, through tweets, saying:

 But for me personally, social media definitely sort of caused additional stress. And I did not enjoy it when core developers were sort of sending tweets where they were questioning my authority or the wisdom of my decisions, rather than saying it to my face and having an honest debate about things...

He also attributed his decision to having had the role of final arbiter for 28 years saying that he wanted "to spend less time feeling stressed about the [Python] community" and that just as he would consider that he'd failed as a father if his son (currently 16 and living at home) was still under his roof when 28, he has the same attitude towards Python, summed up as:

"You're supposed to raise your child for independence"

Van Rossum also speculates on the future governance of Python, but since the interview took place various options were considered and this has largely been settled. See New Governance Model For Python (December 2018.)

The final part of the interview addresses the problems of the disproportionaly small number of woman, not just in the Python project but in all open source communities. Since being made aware some five years ago Van Rossum of what he refers to "unconscious bias" on the part of male contributors he has done his best to counter it within the Python project, by setting an example, providing guidelines and encouragement. He also perceives the way in which men defend their ideas more aggressively than women, even when there is more merit in the ideas put forward by woman and now chooses to mentor only women and recently also underrepresented minorities.

  • Mike James is the author of Programmer's Python: Everything is an Object published this month by I/O Press as part of the  I Programmer Library. With the subtitle "Something Completely Different" this is for those who want to understand the deeper logic in the approach that Python 3 takes to classes and objects.

More Information

Guido Van Rossum | Creator Of Python [VIDEO]

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Last Updated ( Friday, 13 November 2020 )