Guido Van Rossum and the Rise of Python

While his name has not achieved the same level of mainstream recognition as Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg, Guido van Rossum’s contribution to the world of software development has been immense. Programmers and coders the world over have a lot to thank him for, but his most famous creation is, without a doubt, the programming language known as Python.

Guido van Rossum was born in the Netherlands, and from an early age, he showed an aptitude for mathematics coupled with a fascination with the potential of computer technology. He had traced this back to his tenth birthday when he received an electronics kit as a present and began constructing circuits as a hobby. Eventually, Guido started to study at the University of Amsterdam, and it was there that Guido received a master’s degree in mathematics and computer science in 1982. After completing his studies, he segued comfortably into a career at the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica, or CWI. In English, the CWI may be translated as “National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science,” Since being founded in 1946, it has been a hub for computing developments in Europe.

Taken by San Francisco based photographer Dan Stroud https://gvanrossum.github.io/pics.html

Guido takes up a new hobby to replace the ABC coding language

During his time at the CWI, van Rossum began work on the project that would eventually become the Python coding language and define his career. Its origins were decidedly modest, and van Rossum has since claimed that it began simply as a hobby to prevent him from getting bored over the holiday period. It quickly gathered momentum. When discussing the origins of his most famous creation, van Rossum has said it was born out of his frustration with the ABC programming language commonly used within the CWI. One of the significant flaws with ABC was its lack of flexibility and inability to handle abnormal conditions.

Sensing a gap in the market, the young software developer decided to experiment and see if he could develop a viable alternative. Essentially, the aim was to create a new coding language that could interface directly with the CWI’s Amoeba operating system- something else that ABC was incapable of doing.

He began working on it in earnest during the holiday season in 1989 and continued in his free time throughout the next three months. He managed to balance it with his day job at the CWI, and by the end of those three months, the fruits of his labors were substantial. Even though Python was not the vast, all-encompassing creation it would eventually become, it was already clearly preferable to the flawed ABC system. Though it lacked the maturity to tackle the Amoeba-based tasks, the potential of Python was obvious. Van Rossum has subsequently discussed his search for a name that conjured up an air of mystery. As a fan of the popular anarchic British comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Python” seemed like an obvious choice as a name for his bold new creation.

After a year of further development within the CWI, Python was ready to be unleashed on the world at large. So what exactly is Python, and just why is it so revolutionary? Well, Python is a programming language that is accessible and object-oriented. Syntactically speaking, it is similar in construction to the English language, meaning it is straightforward to read and interpret. Its simple syntax makes it particularly attractive for those who may not be all that experienced in coding or programming and are interested in learning. Likewise, the fact that it is open-source means that anybody can use it, and it has a very active and supportive community of users worldwide. Python is used across various fields, unlike the lofty, abstract construction of its predecessor, ABC.

The prevalence of Python today means that developers who are well-versed in its nuances and functionalities are in very high demand. Similarly, developers with proven expertise in using this software can command significant salaries and job prospects. Python has a vast array of potential uses, but some of the most common are machine learning and artificial intelligence, web applications, producing data analytics, and even mobile app programming.

Python is launched, and van Rossum becomes the BDFL

But it is not merely how Python is designed and implemented that makes it such an innovative creation. In addition, in a world, before the term “open source” had been coined, Python was made available to users completely free of charge. The original version went live in 1991, and it immediately became trendy among developers. But over time, Python developed its own community of users, and soon enough, major corporations were growing reliant on Guido van Rossum’s creation. As the mastermind behind Python, he found himself in the position of “Benevolent Dictator for Life” (BDFL), in other words, with a final say over any and all business decisions made by the “Python Steering Council.”

By the mid-1990s, Python had become such a powerhouse worldwide that Van Rossum obtained the support of the US-based Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI). This support prompted him to relocate to Virginia to develop Python full-time, culminating in Python 2.0 in October 2000. However, the year 2000 was also significant for a very different reason- it was the year Guido van Rossum married his longtime partner Kim Knapp.

Python version 3 is the one obvious way to do it

But the progress did not stop there. In 2008, Version 3 of Python was released to the world. As it has evolved, its core emphasis on accessibility and flexibility has remained unchanged. However, it’s important to note that Version 3 has shifted the focus to streamlining, in line with Python’s famous motto: “there should be one— and preferably only one —obvious way to do it.” Essentially, it’s about eradicating spurious complications and preventing the duplication of processes.

Another distinguishing feature of Python is the continued effort that makes it effective but enjoyable to use. As such, Guido van Rossum’s taste for anarchic humor has seeped into the way several tutorials and materials are constructed, with occasional references to Python’s comedic namesake, Monty Python. Since 2004, Python has never left the top-ten list of the world’s most popular coding systems, frequently featuring in the top two or three. Compared to other coding languages, Python offers stability, flexibility, and above all, simplicity.

Guido’s career path after Python 3

Without a doubt, Van Rossum’s most profound contribution to the world of technology and software development has been his creation, virtually single-handed, of the Python programming language. But it is by no means his only achievement. He has worked to make computer software more accessible on a broader level, as exemplified by his 1999 proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). He offered a more rigorous outline of his intentions for Python. The proposal was called “Computer Programming for Everybody” and reflected his desire to develop software for everyday usage with widespread applications.

Though Python is by far his most enduring creation, Van Rossum has continued to bring his unique creative insight to bear for many large-scale corporations. For example, between 2005 and 2012, he worked for Google and developed a code review tool called Mondrian, which remains in use today.

In 2013 he began working for the world-famous San Francisco-based file hosting service Dropbox and remained there for the next six years. Then, in the fall of 2019, he announced his official retirement from the company. Not being a man to rest on his laurels; however, the “retirement” only lasted a year. In November of 2020, Guido van Rossum was coaxed back into the limelight as a member of the development team at Microsoft. He continues to push the boundaries of what his software can accomplish. Most recently, he announced in May 2021 that Microsoft was funding a team to double the speed of Python.

Van Rossum has made it clear that he’s not done yet with his creation and that he’ll continue developing and enhancing its capabilities. He has characterized himself in the past as someone who is easily bored and who thrives on trying new things and maintaining a sense of momentum in his working life. And yet, it’s clear that Python’s futures and its eccentric inventor are inextricably linked. Following news of his employment at Microsoft, they also revealed that the corporation had given him his pick of projects. He had chosen to remain “true to his roots” by focusing on Python.

Guido today

2019 Photo credit: Michael Cavotta.
guido@python.org

These days Guido van Rossum is based in Belmont, California with his wife Kim and his son, Orlijn Michiel Knapp-van Rossum. He has received all kinds of awards and accolades in recognition of his exemplary career, including the Award for the Advancement of Free Software at the Brussels FOSDEM Conference in 2002. He also earned the title of “Distinguished Engineer” from the US-based Association for Computing Machinery and- perhaps even more impressively- a fellowship of the Computer History Museum in California. As such, Guido will always be a towering figure in the field and history of computing.


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