Interview with Andrew Hunt of The Pragmatic Bookshelf

The closed source enterprise is becoming a thing of the past

closed vs open source enterprise
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Andy Hunt is a successful author and publisher, programmer, and founder of the Agile Alliance. In this interview, he shares with us what drove him to open source and what it is that drives it in enterprise business today.

"The old, proprietary operating system companies all died. Closed source programming languages are mostly dead," he says. "Open source isn't a novelty anymore, it's just a big part of how software is." 

Andy also runs a publishing company with fellow open source development author, Dave Thomas. The Pragmatic Bookshelf has published close to 200 software development titles over the past ten years—all hand-picked with the thought that if they'd want to read it, you'd want to read it.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background. During your career, when did you first cross paths with open source, and what was this experience like?

Early on in my career, I worked for AT&T where I had access to the Unix source code. The real stuff. I didn't appreciate at the time what a privilege that was. After I left that job, it became more apparent just how valuable that experience was.

Public domain programs were available and in widespread use even then, from xmodem and bulletin board systems, and later even Minix (an educational Unix system). But there was always a sense that these pieces existed because you couldn't get to the "good stuff," that is, the real Unix kernel and the real applications. It felt to me like something of a shadow system, cheap knock-offs of the real thing.

I had been doing software development at home on an AT&T 6300, which was an early 286-vintage PC that came with AT&T-blessed Unix. I had "the real thing," or at least as close as one could get in those days. But as a consumer, I didn't have access to the source code. I couldn't modify the kernel or any of the system apps. I began to realize how frustrating that really was.

Somewhere in the early 1990's, I started using Slackware's distribution of Linux, probably around version 3 or so. It still felt a little bit second-class, like a replacement for the real thing, but the tide was beginning to turn. By the mid 90's I was doing all development on various Linux platforms, using all open source tools. It was something of a novelty at the time, perhaps, but the important thing was that it worked. It was no longer a "replacement" for something grander; it had become the thing itself.

Since then, my programming practice and our Pragmatic Bookshelf publishing company has been focused on open source solutions. The old, proprietary operating system companies all died. Closed source programming languages are mostly dead. Open source isn't a novelty anymore, it's just a big part of how software is.

Open source has become mainstream and used in the enterprise. What is your view on agile software development and open source development?

Two huge similarities: both grew out of frustrated individuals' needs to get something done. Both will ultimately disappear as a "thing." Consider the archaic term "e-commerce," which was bandied about, discussed, and debated for many years. Now there's no such thing really, it's just "commerce."

Many programmers are using agile development techniques and ideas, but aren't calling it as such; it's just how modern software is developed. Similarly, they are using open source stacks from the operating system up through the web framework, languages, databases, and browser without it being a big deal. Closed source browsers are pictured as runts of the litter, sitting in the corner and eating paste. Not dead yet, but increasingly irrelevant and sliding toward the ultimate resting place as a footnote in history.

Give us an idea of what developers can learn from reading the Pragmatic Programmer and Practices of an Agile Developer? Can your readers expect to see a new book release any time soon?

Pragmatic Programmer and Practices of an Agile Developer were both written with one goal in mind: to help developers. Interestingly, even Pragmatic Programmer which was written back at the turn of the century, mentions mostly open source tools and languages.

Tools alone only get you so far, you have to know how to use them. Those methods and techniques should be free (as in beer) just as the tools are. We look at agile methods and see that all the information is freely available—but it wasn't always so. Proprietary, closed source development methods were once tried, too. You had to pay a license fee in order to join and participate. Fortunately that model is dying as well.

I've written seven books on programming so far, and I'm working on my 8th currently. The publishing company that Dave Thomas and I founded, The Pragmatic Bookshelf, has published close to 200 software development titles over the past ten years—all hand-picked with the idea that is we'd want to read it, you'd want to read it.

Dave's just finishing up his latest book on the open source programing language Elixir, which I highly recommend. If you haven't yet ventured into the new world of functional programming, it's a great place to begin.

One of the goals of All Things Open conference is to educate people on how to make open source work for their organization. As an author and lecturer, what will you share with the audience?

Everything! My experiences writing code, being part of the Agile Manifesto, running a popular publishing company... and I'll peek into that crystal ball to see what's coming next.



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About the author

Robin Muilwijk - Robin Muilwijk is Advisor Internet and e-Government. He also serves as a community moderator for, an online publication by Red Hat, and as ambassador for The Open Organization. Robin is also Chair of the eZ Community Board, and Community Manager at eZ Systems.