This week we welcome Thomas Wouters (@Yhg1s) as our PyDev of the Week! Thomas is a core developer of the Python language. He is very active in open source in general and has been a director of the Python Software Foundation in the past. Let’s spend some time getting to know him better!
Can you tell us a little about yourself (hobbies, education, etc):
I’m a self-taught programmer, a high school dropout, a core CPython developer, and a former PSF Board Director from Amsterdam, The Netherlands. I’ve been playing with computers for a long time, starting when my parents got a Commodore 64 with a couple books on BASIC, when I was 6 or 7. I learned a lot by just playing around on it. Then in 1994 I discovered the internet, while I was still in high school. This was before the days of the World Wide Web or (most) graphics, but I was sucked in by a programmable MUD, a text-based “adventure” environment, called LambdaMOO. LambdaMOO lets you create your own part of the world by making rooms and objects, and programming their behaviour, in a programming language that was similar to Python (albeit unrelated to it). One thing led to another and I dropped out of high school and got a job at a Dutch ISP (XS4ALL), doing tech support for customers. A year later I moved to the Sysadmin department, where I worked for ten years. I gradually moved from system administration to programming, even before I learned about Python.
Besides working with computers I also like playing computer games of all kinds, and non-computer games like board games or card games. I do kickboxing, and I have a bunch of lovely cats, about whom I sometimes tweet. I’m pretty active on IRC as well, and I’m a channel owner of #python on Freenode. I also keep ending up in administration-adjacent situations, like the PSF Board of Directors and the Python Steering Council, not so much because I like it but because I don’t mind doing it, I’m apparently not bad at it, and it’s important stuff that needs to be done well.
Why did you start using Python?
While working at XS4ALL, a friend with whom I worked on a TinyMUX-based MUD knew I preferred LambdaMOO, and mentioned that Python was a lot like the MOO language, at least conceptually. I knew BASIC, Perl and C at the time, but I wasn’t particularly happy about any of them. The MOO language had always just seemed more logical, more natural to me. When I finally tried Python, it was an eye-opening experience. Mind you, this was in 1999, and it was Python 1.5.2; compared to Python 3.8, practically the stone age. Still, I fell in love with it instantly. It just fit my brain so nicely. That I was able to easily (compared to the state of the art at the time) use C libraries, or even embed Python in C programs, was an extra bonus. I didn’t get to use Python much at work until I moved to Google, but I did all kinds of hobby programming with it.
Part of why I kept programming is that I found out how much fun it was to work on CPython itself. I had worked on a number of different C code bases at the time, and CPython’s was the cleanest, most readable, most enjoyable by far. I learned a lot from just reading it, and implementing small features that people asked for. I took a proof-of-concept patch from Michael Hudson to add augmented assignment (+=, *=, etc) and ran with it, getting guidance from Guido himself on a lot of the details. It took a lot longer than I expected, but that ended up becoming PEP 204, and made me a core Python developer. I was just in time to help found the Python Software Foundation as well, which we did in 2003, and I was on its Board of Directors the first three years (and again later).
My involvement with Python also meant I got offered a job at Google, working remotely from Amsterdam, to help maintain Python internally. The rest of my team is in California, and I get to visit them regularly. The work at Google is complex and diverse and challenging enough that after 13 years I’m still not bored.
What other programming languages do you know and which is your favorite?
I know C intimately, and C++ and Java fairly well. I use all three (along with Python) at my day job. I’m also somewhat familiar with Haskell, D, Objective C, and Perl. I used to use Perl a lot at my previous job, but I never enjoyed it and I don’t remember much of it now. My favourite language by far is Python, but C is in a firm second place. I’m familiar enough with its pitfalls that I know when I don’t know something, and where to look it up. I’m also under no illusions about its drawbacks, and would be quite happy if everybody moved to more memory-safe languages. Modern C++ — at least the set of features we’re encouraged to use at work — is also growing on me. The main issue I have with C++ is that it has so many features you shouldn’t use. At work we have a lot of tooling to help us make those choices, which greatly improves the C++ experience.
Thanks for doing the interview, Thomas!