Guido Van Rossum Should Retire (and focus on python)

At the two previous Pycons I’ve attended (2009 and 2012), Guido Van Rossum’s keynotes sounded bored and uninterested, even though the content was meaningful. I was actually wondering if this would be the year that he would step down from BDFL of Python. Thankfully, I was dead wrong.

Instead, he presented a highly technical and very exciting addition to the Python language. Alfredo told me this started when he took a month off between stepping down at Google and starting at DropBox. Now, when normal people take a month off, they relax or travel or visit friends and family. Not our BDFL. He writes a callback-free asynchronous event loop API and reference implementation that is expected to massively alleviate Python’s oft-maligned lack of a consistent, unhackish concurrency solution.

Let’s have more of that. What if Mr. Van Rossum could hack on Python full time? Would we see quantum progress in Python every month?

Anyone who knows about the Gittip project likely thinks they can guess where this is going. We, the people, can each tip our BDFL a few cents or dollars per week so he can focus on whatever he deems worthy. It’s safe to assume that a man who spends his vacation time drafting a new Python library would choose to work on Python full time if we funded him.

This plan is great, and I actually think that Guido could easily earn enough to quit his day job if he endorsed Gittip and invited individuals to tip him. But I’d like to discuss a different plan: Not individuals, but companies should tip Guido the maximum gittip amount as a sort of “partial salary”. At $1248 per year, most companies wouldn’t even notice this expense, and they would get a better programming language and standard library in return. The rate of accelerated development would be even higher if each of these companies chose to invest an entire salary, split between a hundred Python core and library developers. If a hundred companies chose to do this, those hundred people could work on Python full time. The language and library would improve so vastly and so rapidly that the return on investment for each of those companies would be far greater than if they had paid that same salary to a single developer working on their in-house product, full time.

It might take some convincing to justify such a strategy to these corporations. Companies tend to like to know what is happening to their money, and simply throwing a hefty developer salary at Gittip would be hard to justify. Obviously “goodwill” could support some of it, in the same way that so many companies sponsored Pycon in exchange for exposure.

Cutthroat CEOs should perhaps consider not just the value that having Guido working exclusively on Python is, but also the cost of having him work for the competition. I’m sure Box.com CEO Aaron Levie was a little nervous when he found out that the first and greatest Python programmer of all time had recently hired on at a major competitor. Perhaps Box.com can’t afford to steal Guido from Dropbox, but if all the companies currently involved in cloud storage were to tip Guido $24 per week on Gittip, this incredible programmer could be working on an open source product that directly and indirectly benefits their company rather than improving the competing product on a full-time basis.

Most of the arguments that Gittip will fail are based on the premise that not enough money can be injected into the platform to sustain full time development by open source programmers. However, if an open and caring relationship can be built such that the corporate world is also funding the system, I think it can become extremely successful. Everyone will benefit: Open source projects will improve at a rapid pace. Exceptional developers will get to pursue their passions. End users will get better products. The overall level of happiness in the world will be higher.

I would like to see a world where brilliant young software engineers are not risking their mental health (and consequently, their lives) on startup ideas in the hopes of being bought out for a few billion dollars. I would like to see a world where those engineers are not working for large corporations that have neither their employees nor their end users (but rather, their stockholders and advertisers) interests at heart. I would like to see a world where those developers can choose to invest their passion in open source products that will change the world.

10 Comments

  1. Andy says:

    Please stop using ‘quantum’ when referring to massive. It’s the exact antonym of large.

  2. Do he will do more if we also pay him to do not spend time for family and kids? And probably to do not waste time for sleep.

  3. Ankur says:

    Woot !!! Hats off to your courage to post your thought … they sound completely rational to me … but at the end of the day Guido is a person and lives for himself and his family and not for the community so we don’t have the choice to decide what decisions he should make. But I really like your line of thought here.

    • Dusty Phillips says:

      I agree with you 100% and I hope Guido isn’t too upset with me for using him as an example. However, your point actually illustrates the beauty of Gittip; the tips are anonymous and obligation-free. We would be paying Guido (or other prominent open source developers) to do whatever he wants. Obviously, if he chooses to spend this time more with his family than on open source development, he might receive fewer tips. On the other hand, if he chose to direct time that is currently spent on Dropbox toward the Python community, I think it is possible fro his tips to outpace his current salary, allowing him even more time for himself and his family.

  4. Dirley Rodrigues says:

    Nah, he would end up getting bored.

  5. Don says:

    Arguments for Gittip’s success notwithstanding, I don’t think this is a good plan.

    I don’t want to speak for him, but I don’t think Guido has a “day job” because he *has to have one*, I think it’s because he sees value in being connected to real-world python usage instead of spending his entire day on language design. As I understood it, Guido’s employment with Google left him with 50% of his time to work on Python. I can’t imagine he worked out a less favorable deal with Dropbox.

    I think the gesture is nice, but ultimately it seems the BDFL is doing just fine for himself AND for Python.

    That being said, if the BDFL *is* interested in this, I’m sure my company would be happy to pitch in. ;-)

    • Nick Coghlan says:

      I don’t think it has been officially stated anywhere, but I don’t think it’s a secret either: Guido still gets to spend 50% of his time on Python, even with the move to Dropbox.

      It’s also incredibly useful as a language designer to be in an environment that actually *uses* that language heavily. It’s a very different perspective from that which you would get just by working on the language for its own sake (for example, Guido’s conversion to understanding why the async programming model is valuable came from writing the NBD interface for Google App Engine, even though he still hates callback-based programming).

    • Yuriy says:

      Totally agree.

      It would be hard to find out what’s good for stdlib and the language without real-world coding. Tulip was partly inspired by one of Guido’s last tasks in Google – async API for GAE.

      So no, he should not retire. He’s great as he is. There’s no reason to speed up language and stdlib development. One release in a year with good graduate innovation is more than enough. How long ago did RHEL support only 2.5 and nothing newer?

  6. CrashLog says:

    Unfortunately, those open source products that we crave would more than likely result in a loss of profit for software companies, so I doubt they will ever support a completely open source world, or any attempts at achieving such a paradise. The unfortunate nature of money.

    • Yuriy says:

      Working with OpenStack I see a number of huge companies pumping enormous amounts of money into development of a family of opensource projects because industry simply requires something new and something common at this point.
      So I disagree with you. Corporate world does not compete with opensource projects. It uses them to increase profit and lower expenses.