Armin Ronacher's Thoughts and Writings

On Programming Communities

written on Thursday, February 13, 2014

This post was a long time coming but Ian Bicking's recent post about Saying Goodbye to Python made me finally sit down and write it. This is personal and probably not all that interesting, but it's important for me to have it written down somewhere.

It's very easy to forget about all the people that put you to the place you are today and often they don't even know it.

In a few days Python will be with me for ten years now. I don't exactly remember which day I downloaded a Python interpreter for the first time, but thanks to living parts of my life on the internet, there is a good track record from a certain point onwards.

Python, Tech Communities and Me

I owe a lot to online communities and people I met on the internet. When I was about thirteen or so I bought two books on programming. A book on Delphi and a book on Python. The latter was a book by Gregor Lingl called “Python für Kids” which was a programming booked aimed towards young people. Without his book I my life would have been very different and I would have ended up as a Delphi programmer for a lot longer.

Through that book I found the German Python forum and through that forum I first learned that people are actually using Linux for real things. The former administrator of that forum recommended me to have a look at the new Ubuntu Linux distribution if I want to have something to play around with, because it embraces Gnome. That administrator was Fritz Cizmarov aka Dookie who sadly passed away in 2005.

While I did not touch Python much initially through the programming book and the recommendation of Fritz I became a Ubuntu user. That was a few months after the initial Ubuntu version shipped. I found the German ubuntuusers website which just appeared at that time. Since I have done a bit of PHP at that point, I volunteered to help out with the phpBB installation there to make it look a bit nicer and to add a news section to the website. Sascha Morr trusted me enough to give me access to the heart of the website and from 2004 to somewhere around 2007 or so I spent ungodly amounts of time trying to improve it.

I learned a lot while maintaining ubuntuusers. When I started out I literally modified PHP scripts through uploading files with FTP. Later I would modify those files by SSHing into the server and changing them with vim up there. I learned about SQL injections and proper software development by making all the mistakes there. A lot of that knowledge I owe to Matthias Urlichs who provided us with servers there. I was very lucky with timing there. When I started out with playing around on ubuntuusers there very only a few hundred people on there and me breaking the forums was not a big deal. Initially we were on a web hoster with our PHP stuff, later on we got multiple servers and worked together with the French Ubuntu team on the same servers.

Before I stopped working on ubuntuusers I rewrote with the other people of the web team there the entirety of phpBB and MoinMoin and half a dozen other tiny things in Python. Pocoo started out as an attempt to write a phpBB replacement in Python for this particular website but while doing that I learned so much, that I started many times over. At the end ubuntuusers ended up with a custom forum, a custom wiki engine, blog aggregator and more. We added XMPP based notification support and other fun things that taught me more about network programming and programming altogether.

The vast majority of people I interacted with at ubuntuusers I only knew over the internet. Many of which for a while I did not even know the real name of.

Jumping Around

While I am in the Python community for longer than the Ubuntu community, my experience with the Ubuntu community has taught me my most important lesson in life: to not get attached to communities too much.

I adored everything about Ubuntu when it started out. I loved contributing in any way I could. When a wallpaper I made shipped on the pressed CD I was the happiest young man alive.

Over time though it became clear to me that this was not a community I wanted to hang around with for too long. The community behaved largely in different ways than I was okay with. There was a lot of internal politics and the philosophy of Canonical changed in a way I could not support personally.

I took a lot of my motivation to do something for the Ubuntu community and tried to apply it to Python with various successes. Initially I did not do much, but through Alexander Schremmer from the German IRC channel for Python I met Georg Brandl which at the time was already a core committer to Python. Even more than I learned about programming through hacking around with ubuntuusers stuff, I learned programming from Georg. He showed me how to extend CPython's interpreter to have some new keywords and how C works.

I stopped doing as much for Ubuntu and ubuntuusers and instead focused more on writing things in Python. Georg Brandl and me started Pygments (originally Pykleur) to replace the PHP based syntax highlighters.

At one point we just declared in our own little #pocoo channel (which back then was just for the attempt to write a Python based bulletin board) that now that we're 10 people we should switch to English.

I have IRC logs going back many years now and it's fascinating to go back and it's fascinating to see how much has changed. How much I have changed and how much everything around me has changed.

#pocoo is still around and it's now a few hundred people all around the clock.

There were lots of other people too that left a lasting impact on me. From the German Python forums there is Marek Kubica who I learned a whole bunch from too. He and some other people from the German Python community were also the first people I ever met on the internet first and in person later. Things like that you don't forget.

Growing up Online

I suppose when teenagers grow up they want to fit in somewhere but they are not sure where. For me it was this for a long time. I always tried to fit in somewhere. First Python and Ubuntu, but also Ruby, PHP and other things. You sometimes see a person in a community and you try to match them.

When I dabbled into Ruby I met Kornelius Kalnbach and Christian Neukirchen on the German ruby forums or IRC channels. Kornelius wrote CodeRay, the first syntax highlighter I came about that almost correctly highlighted Ruby code. When Georg Brandle and I started working on Pygments we competed with him about who could highlight Ruby code better.

When I got frustrated that WSGI was not getting any traction in Python I got interested in Ruby again. Why the lucky stiff was doing this own little camping micro framework and Christian Neukirchen made a specification of WSGI for Ruby (Rack) to which I gave some comments and provided the terrible logo for (which is still in use!).

For a while I did some PHP and started a port of my Jinja programming language to it that ultimately became Twig which people are still using.

But whereever I went, I always came back to Python in a month or two. Something was just special about it.

Python People

Which then points me to the main reason I am writing this blog post. I would not be in the place I am today if it was not for so many incredible people in the Python community. I already mentioned Georg Brandl who was a mentor of mine, but there are so many more.

Ian Bicking was a huge motivation for me. I read each and every of his blog posts and I pestered it on IRC many times to learn more things. Jacob Kaplan-Moss is the reason I am giving talks at conferences. I went to the EuroDjangoCon in Prague in 2009 and after one of the talks walked up to him to ask some questions and talk him up. Later that day he told me to give a presentation about some of the things I'm doing at DjangoCon. A few months later I was renewing my passport and leaving to the United States for the first time to give a presentation about not using Django at DjangoCon.

At the two DjangoCons in Portland I met Mike Malone (from Pounce back then I think), Adam Lowry, and Michael Richardson from Urban Airship for the first time. Same with Jason Kirtland from Idealist. I got a lot of encouragement from meeting all of them and it was incredible to meet people have have been using some of the things I did, even if just in little bits.

I had many amazing discussions with Python developers about technology and the world and it's almost impossible to imagine that all of this was possible.

From 2009 until now I got so many opportunities through the Python community to travel to other countries, share experiences and learn new things. I have good memories of sharing drunk nights with Jesse Noller talking about Python 3 (before it was cool) at PyCon US or Honza Kral about god and the world until early in the morning in a bar in Berlin at

I met Maciej Fijałkowski for the first time at an almost exclusively Polish conference somewhere on the border to the Czech Republic. Even though the conference was basically in the middle of nowhere from my point of view, it was loads of fun.

In general I can't enumerate the amazing interactions I had with Python people at various conferences. I got to get to the Ukraine, Poland, Japan, the United States, Italy, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and South Africa, the Netherlands, Israel and Russia just for Python conferences or for Python people.

I celebrated my last three birthdays at a (not so tiny any more) Python conference in Groningen with lots of awesome Python people.

There are so many people I forgot to mention that left a lasting impact on me (in no particular order) that are either from the Python community or closely associated with it: Simon Willison, David Cramer, Adam Hitchcock, Michelle Rowley, Carl Meyer, Leah Culver, Eric Holscher, Alex Gaynor, Adrian Holovaty, Nick Coghlan, Graham Dumpleton, Łukasz Langa, Simon Cross, Chris McDonough, Ned Batchelder (who unintentionally told me a very important lesson in life), Guido van Rossum, Chad Whitacre, Mike Bayer, Eric Florenzano, Michael Foord, Idan Gazit, Jannis Leidl, Steve Holden, Michael Trier, Lynn Root, Tyler Šiprová, Hynek Schlawack, Daniel and Audrey Roy Greenfeld, Kenneth Reitz, Glyph Lefkowitz, Amir Salihefendic, Holger Krekel, Peter Baumgartner and probably a few others that temporarily escaped my memory.

Community vs. Technology

I will always feel a strong affection to the community around Python. This is interesting for me because I feel a lot less of an attachment to Python itself these days then I did a few years ago.

I still use Python on a daily basis and I will continue working on my projects and go to Python conferences, but I can very much imagine that in a few years from now I might be doing something else. I will however be always grateful for the Python community and I have a hard time believing I will ever feel such a strong attachment to a programming community as its.

Until recently the Python community steered free from controversy and it has been (and continues to be) an amazing starting point into software development and Open Source. It welcomes everybody and it's a great place to dive in. I would not be the person I am without the support from a lot of people in it.

I have heard from multiple people now that they still feel at home in the Python community and associate themselves with it, even though they are now doing Go or JavaScript development or just generally using Python to a lesser extend or in different ways.

It became important for me to differentiate the community from the technology however.

I love the community and everything it did for me, but as I did more and more programming I started to discover that technologies are not perfect and sometimes they go in different ways. I still love lots and lots of the ideas and concepts behind Python but I'm starting to appreciate more and more the other programming concepts too. Who knows what I will be doing in ten years, but I always want to hold the Python community in high regard, even if my technological choices might no longer involve it.

Past and Future

Soon it will be 10 years of me being exposed to Python and through it, 10 years of getting to know many amazing people, many of which influenced me. I hope the Python community does not change too much and stays the way it was for others to get the same opportunity.

More important than that: I hope I can give back. I probably won't have much of a chance to give back to the people that had an impact on me, but I can always try to be an influence for the next generation of programmers.

This entry was tagged python and thoughts