Larry Wall is the computer programmer responsible for creating Perl, a powerful general-purpose programming language known for its strengths in text processing. Wall, whose graduate work was in linguistics, designed Perl in 1987 for reports processing and continues to oversee the language's development according to the motto "Larry is always right, even when he was wrong." He also originated the three canonical "virtues" of a good programmer: laziness, impatience, and hubris.
Question: How do Perl developers differ from developers of other languages?
Larry Wall: I think by and large Perl developers are more social; they really believe in community in the way that many other developers do not. I'd like to think that I've encouraged some of that by my talks and by trying to show by example.
But really, I think they think of themselves as artists. Perl is not really so much a way of trying to think like the computer, which most other languages tend to encourage, but it's more like an artistic medium, and it's a set of paints and a canvas that you're allowed to sort of do whatever you like and try to please the other people. And the only judge of whether something is good or bad in the Perl community is whether the rest of the community likes it or not. But people are really, really motivated by this and Perl has more shared software, shared modules, that people put out there for other people to use, than any other computer language. There's about 18,000 modules, last I counted—well, I didn't count them, I just looked at the number—and, like any collection of programs or any collection of anything else, they all follow what's known as Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crud. But of that 10%, there's just a wonderful selection of ways to get your job done, things that are just crazy. Let's you program in Latin, they let you program in white space, so you look at your program, and it's just spaces and tabs and you can't see it at all. It's just lots of fun stuff.
The Perl culture is a culture of fun and we really encourage that and do not think that it is in any way counter to the notion of doing good work. Fun seems to be something you're not allowed to have in a lot of modern, corporate culture and we think that—maybe this is another one of those post-modern things—you can have fun and do good work at the same time. We really believe that.
Question: Will you appoint a successor to take over Perl?
Larry Wall: I've thought about that from time to time and generally when I think about who I would appoint as a successor, I don't generally tell anybody and usually by five years later, it would be someone else. And I don't think there's anyone who thinks quite like me, so I think that really has to be something that needs to be figured out by the community if I get run over by a bus.
I think that I have managed to pass along a number of the principles by which Perl has been designed that even if one person emphasizes this aspect of the design and another person emphasizes a different aspect, they'll be able to work that out. Hopefully not the way that the four generals worked it out after Alexander The Great. But I trust the Perl community to do what's good for the Perl community.
Question: Have you made any money from Perl?
Larry Wall: Well, that depends on how you define it. I get a few book royalties, but it's not really enough to make a living. I have received a few grants over my life, but that's also not enough to make a living. I would say that the real way in which I have benefited from Perl is the way in which many open source authors or creators benefit, and that is that some company will be willing to hire them just to work on that. So in a sense, I have my current job because of Perl, and I am mostly expected to work on Perl, and also advise them in things that are related to that.
But in a sense, my job is remuneration for that. They're not going to make a movie out of Perl, this notwithstanding, so I don't expect to have a Harry Potter on my hands. But I'm comfortably well off because of Perl.
There's one other way in which I have actually made some money from Perl. That's some number of years ago, Yahoo was about to go public and they said, "Hey, we used Perl heavily in everything we developed here, so would you like to buy some pre-IPO stock?" And I said, "Yeah, sure." And so I bought a little bit of that stock and that turned out over the years to pay for all my kids' college expenses. So that sort of thing happens every now and then. It was very nice to not have to worry about how to pay for their college.