My first FOSS love was Perl

My first FOSS love was Perl

Trying out Perl to solve a development problem led to a career-transforming love for free and open source software.

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Set the wayback machine to 1993. I was working at a small company as a programmer and product deployment specialist. The product was COBOL-based and the OS was SCO Xenix. Both were based on open standards, but not open source. I was hired because I knew the medical software business and I had experience in several flavors of what was then called Micro-Unix. I didn't know a thing about COBOL, but that was the job opening. (PS, if you get any calls from the past: COBOL is not hard to learn.)

After a stint as a maintenance and enhancement programmer on the product line, I was tasked with managing the integration process, builds, version control, and releases as well as endpoint installation. I had been struggling with some cool but, by then, very complex C shell (CSH) scripts. I needed a better tool.

A co-worker suggested I take a look at Perl. That was not as easy as it is now—I had to order a set of floppies from Walnut Creek (the company) in California, that had a collection of shareware that included Perl (version 4).

After a week or so of anxious waiting, my box of floppies showed up, and I installed and compiled Perl on the Texas Instruments/SCO Xenix development system. All the developers shared this one computer, which had two 140MB drives and about 16MB of RAM, as I recall.

Once Perl was installed, the learning curve was… interesting, shall I say. But I soon discovered that Randal L. Schwartz, the sole writer of the first Learning Perl book, was not only easy to find, but lived in my neighborhood! A few chats and a karaoke bar visit or two with Randal, and I was well on my way to cracking the code.

The migration from CSH to Perl was so fast and brought such dramatic improvements in the speed and maintainability of the code that I was already convinced that community-based software tools are a great thing to be part of. I also discovered that Randal and, as time went by, other members of the Perl community shared a passion for free and open source software (FOSS). This led me to shift my entire career from predominantly being an end-user application developer, to working as a systems data processing professional, and then thriving as a source configuration management/build and release engineer for the next decade and a half.

As I moved deeper into management and away from direct development, I kept my chops up by writing and enhancing Perl CGI-based web tools for the team—everything from helpdesk ticket systems to agenda management. I realized that few non-open source tools can follow you through changes in technology like FOSS can. Perl let me keep my skills solid even as I moved from Xenix through AIX, HP/UX, Windows, SunOS, Solaris, and now to Linux and MacOS.

Although I have not used Perl in many years, it's still my first love, as it introduced me to the world of open source, where I have made my living for the last 20 years, first as a consumer and advocate and now as a contributor and consultant with several FOSS communities. For that, I am truly grateful!

About the author

Tony McCormick Head Shot
Tony McCormick - Tony McCormick has worked in various health IT care related activities for the last 30 years, including Medical Practices, Health Maintenance Organizations, Preferred Provider Organizations and charity clinics. He is also a steering committee member and integrator of http://LibreHealth.io for the LibreEHR (http://libreehr.org). He is a long time contributor/committer and former board member of the OpenEMR project (...