Mar 24, 2012

Hypertext Preprocessor-ed by Rasmus Lerdorf

College fests do not excite me. Not the (late) Thomso. Not Cognizance either. In fact, last year, I missed the Thomso, and left on the second day of Cogni (and a week of classes thereafter), just to attend the 20th wedding anniversary of my parents. Now, I was attending the first technical fest of the college properly in my fourth semester. Little did I know that it would turn out to be quite an experience.

Rasmus Lerdorf, the creator of PHP
Sketch by Nitesh
I got up in the morning to the sweet sound of the 'Hotel California' ringtone. Mayank Sir had called me to remind me of a guest lecture by Rasmus Lerdorf, the creator of PHP. Now, just a few months back, Dr H C Verma has visited our campus for a guest lecture, and I did not even care to attend, just to get an hour extra worth of sleep! Carrying on with the same attitude, I closed my eyes to go back to sleep, but the words 'it's a lifetime opportunity' kept on ringing in my ears. So, with great difficulty, I got ready for the same, and reached just minutes before it started.

Before we proceed, I guess I should tell you this. My first web app was a PHP based one. Although, current requirements have shifted my focus to Python/Django (and all the stuff on the web justifying Python over PHP), I would always have a soft corner for PHP. After all, it was PHP which changed me! And it is certainly stupid to think that I would give up the opportunity to meet it's very creator.

After a very entertaining lecture (it can be found here; navigate using the right and left keys), which was also attended by Holger Bech Nielson, one of the fathers of string theory, there was an interactive session, which enabled us to get an insight into his life. Thereafter, people started taking pictures with him. and strangely enough, I decided to wait, as I knew there was a possibility that he would visit the IMG Lab, which he did (thanks to Mayank Sir, who persuaded him during his interview, on behalf of Geek Gazette).

Vivek Prakash asking the "serious" stuff to Rasmus
During Rasmus' time at the IMG lab, not only did he answer the 'technical' questions of Vivek Sir, but talked a lot about his life in general, followed by a group photo (I had already taken over 400 pics of him, scaled down later...) And, to prove people were far more excited that you might think, here's what Kshitij did!

Apart from giving birth to the language, which represents over a third (35% to be precise) of the world wide web now, he has contributed to a number of open source projects, most importantly the Apache foundation, and MySQL. He is also the one who introduced the 'Limit' clause in SQL, which is being followed even by Microsoft owned SQL Server.

Spending time with him really makes you feel how humble he is, and that is what makes someone stand above others. Just like any other person, he has a dream destination: Brazil. Having worked there, he wants to live there once he retires. Strangely enough, he says, he has an engineering degree, and not a computer science one.

'No one can be successful without tasting failures...' Mr Lerdorf says that you generally face ten times more failures than success, but that is life. Talking about the criticisms that haunt PHP, he has a very good point. He says that PHP is so easy that
I can teach a semi-intelligent monkey to code in PHP in three hours.
So, it is basically bad programming practices followed that are to blame and not the language itself. A good analogy is provided by the example of Microsoft Windows, which faces a lot of criticism as compared to maybe, Helen OS, which is quite unheard of! With great popularity, comes a lot of criticism.
Discussing his highs and lows

On being asked why some people prefer paid versions of .NET (the only competitor of PHP in terms of the percentage of sites using it) over open source alternatives, he says,
Those people are like dinosaurs. They are gonna be extinct pretty soon. They might think that paying for a service is better, but over time, their number going down and down...
He emphasizes the fact that he developed PHP for his own problems, but over the years, it has had to evolve to suit the changing generation of programmers. He also points out that people might blame a lot of features of PHP, but they fail to realise that it was the code he had written two decades ago. He rightly says that the reaction of the same critics would be interesting if he starts pointing out errors from their code, which is comparatively very recent.
If you're told to publish some code you wrote maybe a year ago, I am sure you would hesitate(very true, considering I have the same feelings for my first app which I started last year). Well, most of you (referring to us in the room) don't even have code going back twenty years, so you can imagine the feeling.

Frameworks don't fascinate him much. They are built in a far more general sense. Especially if we develop applications for the long run, frameworks are a strict no-no! However, he does have a slight liking for Drupal and Wordpress. In his own words,
If you want to use scissors, why carry the whole Swiss knife?
Regarding the fact that Wordpress was hacked sometime before, he points out that it is not PHP's fault, but the programmers'. PHP is just a medium using which we express ourselves. It is the code within which must be blamed and not the language itself.

Enjoying sweets and samosas
Prior to joining the current organization that he works for, Etsy, he served as an infrastructure architect at Yahoo! for over seven years. Now, a layman would be shocked as to how someone can leave a giant to join something which is quite unheard of. It is because he wants to change the world. Being a puppet to the big bosses is something which he just can not accept. Etsy is responsible to helping small businesses sell their products, especially in Mexico, the economy of which is dwindling to say the least. Being a technical advisor, he is not able to do this directly, but he feels happy that he is involved in some way to the cause.

He has also helped certain start ups over the years, mostly giving his critical comments on the code, which is jokingly says, while grabbing a bite from the samosa and taking a sip of milk, 'no programmer can refute, this coming from the creator of the very language he codes in!'

Having a light moment
'If you have a 10 year old son, you tend to forget about your hobbies', he says on being questioned as to what he does in his free time, emphasizing his great love for his child. He loves sport, football being his favourite. In the world cup, he supports his country Denmark. When it comes to club football, he watches the occasional match of Barcelona (fondly remembering Messi's hat trick again Mallorca last season). He also admires Liverpool and Manchester United, saying it's tough to follow European club football living in a time zone that he does. And yes, he does NOT play FIFA as he uses Linux in all his computers. He loved playing football in his college, which he is not able to do because of the fact that he has to travel a lot, leaving him only with his running shoes for exercise.

He concludes (on why he joined Etsy),
Technical people are a$$h0l3s, and you just can not sell them technology. Take me for example. If you come to me with some technology, I would shoo you saying this is some bull$hit. As I can build the same over the weekend, why should I pay for it?

Liked this post? Have any suggestions? Just let me know. Feel free to comment below!