Episode 2: Interview with Alex Martelli, Python Guru

June 21, 2017

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Pramod HS

Alex Martelli is computer engineer, Python Guru and fellow of the Python Software Foundation. He is currently working at Google and author of book, Python in a Nutshell, co-editor of the Python Cookbook. He won Activators’ Choice Award, and Frank Willison award for his outstanding contributions to the Python community and He is famously known as MartelliBot for answering thousands of questions in stack-overflow. It is an honor to have you on the show.

Please click the above audio player to listen to his interview.

Below are the questions asked during the interview and his summarized responses –

1. You worked with IBM and think3 inc, you did a lot of development work between 1980-90. Received 3 prestigious awards working at IBM. Something you want to share about your contributions with the listeners?

The most interesting thing I worked on in research was the real-time speech recognition, speech to text system. It was the first working one in the world with a large vocabulary, tens of thousands of words. Right now it doesn’t sound like much because any phone can do better than that but back in the early 80s that it was rather revolutionary.

2. Alex, you have written books, tons of Python Related materials, talks in many conferences and answering questions in stack-overflow. What motivates you to contribute to the Python Community

I love to contribute to because I love helping people. That sounds a bit generic but let me put it more precisely. I couldn’t have achieved one third of what I did without a lot of very experienced practitioner donating their time to helping me back when I was very early in my career, particularly when having been born from College as a hardware designer with exactly one software course, FORTRAN programming language course to be precise because every engineer had to know FORTRAN.

3. Python first appeared in 1991, but it was some what unknown until 2004. What caused the interest in this 25 year old language to go through the roof in recent times?

A lot of combination of factors but I think some very substantial credit must be given to O’Reilly the publisher and particularly their editor at the time Frank Willison. There was a reason that one of the most prestigious awards for contributions to the Python community is in memory of Frank Willison because he sold Python early on and believed it. And made books from this highly prestigious technical publisher, even though the business of the publisher at the time was in completely other areas like scripting language, old hackers wanted to use Perl. And Not this Python, nobody’s ever heard of, Frank saw it and believed in it and that’s how the books started coming out.

4. Did backing from Google played a role too?

Well, I don’t think that was so visible externally. Larry Page in his dormitory at Stanford had written or tried to write a web spider to get a copy of some subset of the web on his computers so he could try his famous Page algorithm. He was trying to use the brand-new language Java in 1.0 beta version, and it kept crashing. So he asked for help from his roommate and his roommate took a look at said ‘oh you’re using that Java disaster’. Of course, it crashed and did it in 100 lines of Python. It runs perfectly, and that’s how Google became possible through 100 lines of Python. But I had no idea until about five years ago that it had played so crucial role so early on.

Similarly, if I hadn’t heard it from the mouth of Guido himself, I would never have known that Python was at the heart of the web. The very first Web server and web browser were written by the inventor of the World Wide Web, HTTP, and HTML in Python. He wasn’t really a programmer; he was a physicist and Python was far easier to use than anything else.

5. Python has transformed from being a scripting language into a general purpose programming language. Are there any efforts being made in the community to use Python for Mobile Development?

I believe they are, but I’m not in direct contact with any of those sub-communities. I know that when he worked for Google, Guido van Rossum made an impassioned plea to Andy Rubin that Python should be a first class citizen in the Android ecosystem, but Andy wasn’t convinced. He wanted to stick with C for the low levels and Java for the higher levels. That’s a pity. I am sure Apple feels the same to use Objective-C, and it is now swift, so each has their own languages. Meaning every successful application is going to be written twice, that’s such a waste.

6. Python not been able to make use multicore machines. Did you ever see a problem here?

I think this is typical confusion between a language and implementation. It’s easy to make this terrible mistake when an implementation is dominant enough to think it’s the only one there can be but is never the case. Python as a language has absolutely no problem. You just need to reach for implementations back to work on that basis such as IronPython by Microsoft or Jython used to be by Sun but after it was bought by Oracle, I think it went entirely open source, not to forget Pypy, the Python compiler written in Python itself. All of those will let you use just as many courses you wish. It’s only C Python the widespread implementation of Python written in C that has a global interpreter lock which makes it a problem to use in pure Python multiple cores.

7. You co-authored Python Cook Book in 2002 and went on to write your own book “Python in Nutshell” next year. Both are outstanding books and review are great. Tell us your of experience of writing technical books

The first addition of Python in a nutshell was far easier than the Python cookbook because on Python in a nutshell I was strictly on my own while in the cookbook I had to integrate recipes coming from a vast number of holders and I wanted to do that while keeping the book entirely technically correct to reasonably uniform in tone but not so uniform you couldn’t tell the voices of the recipe holders from each other. In a nutshell, I was in a much more traditional situation essentially on my own entirely in charge of the structure and the flow of the book. I did at that time have help from a wonderful editor who was very used to working with great technicians who weren’t writers.

Now moving on through the years on joining Google I had to reduce my writing a lot because there are only 24 hours in the day and lot of great things to do inside Google but recently I’ve managed to get out the 3rd Edition of Python in a nutshell and there I had the interesting experience of working with two co-author. Fortunately one of a co-author is my wife, Anna, first woman fellow of the PSF, the first woman winner of the Frank Willison Award and the other is an old friend Steve Holden essentially the founder of the PSF and inventor of PyCon and with three of us working together there’s a lot of synergies that just don’t happen, can’t happen if you’re writing alone.

8. Your talks on Design Patterns are fantastic. Design Patterns for Python? Will we see this book from you?

I actually once proposed this to O’Reilly and they were not interested. What they wanted was another edition of Python in a nutshell. So now that I’ve satisfied that after I take at least six months break from any writing possibly a year, I think I will go to the charge again.

9. Is there any new language like Go or RUST that interests you?

Yes, actually exactly the two you mentioned. I’ve used GO for the systems part of a rather complicated architecture I was optimizing. I think GO has really got something going. I think like C it would be a big mistake to use it for application level work. And RUST I could only use it as a hobby.

Hear the above Podcast for the full interview…

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