Perl is Free Software's COBOL, and That's Ok!

Tuesday 18 December 2012 by Bradley M. Kuhn

In 1991, I'd just gotten my first real programming job for two reasons: nepotism, and a willingness to write code for $12/hour. I was working as a contractor to a blood testing laboratory, where the main development job was writing custom software to handle, process, and do statistical calculations on blood testing results, primarily for paternity testing.

My father had been a software developer since the early 1970s, and worked as a contractor at this blood lab since the late 1970s. As the calendar had marched toward the early 1990s, technology cruft had collected. The old TI mainframe, once the primary computer, now only had one job left: statistical calculation for paternity testing, written in TI's Pascal. Slowly but surely, the other software had been rewritten and moved to an AT&T 3B2/600 running Unix System VR3.2.3. That latter machine was the first access I had to a real computer, and certainly the first time I had access to Usenet. This changed my life.

Ironically, even on that 3B2, the accounting system software was written in COBOL. This seemed like “more cruft” to me, but fortunately there was a third-party vendor who handled that software, so I didn't have to program in COBOL.

I had the good fortune, actually, to help with the interesting problems, which included grokking data from a blood testing machine that dumped a bunch of data in some weird reporting format onto its RS-232 port at the end of every testing cycle. We had to pull the data of that RS-232 interface and load the data in the database. Perl, since it treated regular expressions as first-class citizens, and had all the Unix block device fundamentals baked in as native (for the RS-232 I/O), was the obvious choice.

After that project, I was intrigued by this programming language that had made the job so easy. My father gave me a copy of the Camel book — which was, at that point, almost hot off the presses. I read it over a weekend and I decided that I didn't really want to program in any other language again. Perl was just 4 years old then; it was a young language — Perl 4 had just been released. I started trying to embed Perl into our database system, but it wasn't designed for embedding into other systems as a scripting language. So, I ended up using Tcl instead for the big project of rewriting the statical calculation software to replace the TI mainframe. After a year or two writing tens of thousands of lines of Tcl, I was even more convinced that I'd rather be writing in Perl. When Perl 5 was released, I switched back to Perl and never really looked back.

Perl ultimately became my first Free Software community. I lurked on perl5-porters for years, almost always a bit too timid to post, or ever send in a patch. But, as I finished my college degree and went to graduate school, I focused my thesis work on Perl and virtual machines. I went to the Perl conference every year. I was even in the room for the perl5-porters meeting the day after Jon Orwant's staged tantrum, which was the catalyst for the Perl 6 effort. I wrote more than a few RFC's during the Perl 6 specification process. And, to this day, even though I've since done plenty of Python development, too, when I need to program to do something, I open an Emacs buffer and start typing #!/usr/bin/perl.

Meanwhile, I never did learn COBOL. But, I was amazed to hear that multiple folks who graduated with me eventually got jobs at a health insurance company. The company trained them in COBOL, so that they could maintain COBOL systems all day. Everyone once in a while, I idly search a job site for COBOL. Today, that search is returning 2,338 open jobs. Most developers never hear about it, of course. It's far from the exciting new technology, but it's there, it's needed and it's obviously useful to someone. Indeed, the COBOL standard was just updated 10 years ago, in 2002!

I notice these days, though, that when I mentioned having done a lot of Perl development in my life, the average Javascript, Python, or Haskell developer looks at me like I looked at my dad when he told me that accounting system was written in COBOL. I'd bet they'd have my same sigh of relief when told that “someone else” maintains that code and they won't have to bother with it.

Yet, I still know people heavily immersed in the Perl community. Indeed, there is a very active Perl community out there, just like there's an active COBOL community. I'm not active in Perl like I once was, but it's a community of people, who write new code and maintain old code in Perl, and that has value. More importantly, though, (and unlike COBOL), Perl was born on Usenet, and was released as Free Software from the day of its first release, twenty-five years ago today. Perl was born as part of Free Software culture, and it lives on.

So, I get it now. I once scoffed at the idea that anyone would write in COBOL anymore, as if the average COBOL programmer was some sort of second-class technology citizen. COBOL programmers in 1991, and even today, are surely good programmers — doing useful things for their jobs. The same is true of Perl these days: maybe Perl is finally getting a bit old fashioned — but there are good developers, still doing useful things with Perl. Perl is becoming Free Software's COBOL: an aging language that still has value.

Perl turns 25 years old today. COBOL was 25 years old in 1984, right at the time when I first started programming. To those young people who start programming today: I hope you'll learn from my mistake. Don't scoff at the Perl programmers. 25 years from now, you may regret scoffing at them as much as I regret scoffing at the COBOL developers. Programmers are programmers; don't judge them because you don't like their favorite language.

Update (2013-04-12): I posted a comment on Allison Randal's blog about similar issues of Perl's popularity.

Posted on Tuesday 18 December 2012 at 15:00 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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