Love for Perl unites diverse community

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I've used Perl for several years, beginning in 2002 on Solaris, then moving to Debian and working on Koha in 2008. Surprisingly (bafflingly, in retrospect), I had not connected with the larger Perl community at all in that time, choosing to stay within the smaller communities I was already embedded in.

In late 2009, I finally started to understand myself better, and came out as transgender. Prior to that, I appeared to everyone—including myself—as a rather ordinary straight white guy. All of a sudden, at 41 years old, I found myself in a very, very small minority and rather anxious about the whole thing. But I knew from the get-go that I was blessed—I had an employer who was committed to non-discrimination, supportive friends and colleagues, and a loving family.

In the spring of 2012, I talked to my boss about attending YAPC::NA (Yet Another Perl Conference::North America), a conflab of Perl luminaries from all over the world, and a chance to connect with the larger Perl community. The boss OKed the trip and I started preparing to go. I was nervous, fully expecting to be the only trans person there (as I typically was at library-oriented events that I normally attended). I connected with the IRC channel for YAPC::NA attendees, and after some silent lurking introduced myself, hoping to at least have some names to look out for at the conference. Other than these virtual acquaintances, I knew nobody—I was going to a town I'd only been to once before with 300ish total strangers. As the time got closer, I was frankly terrified of what might happen. What sort of bigotry and discrimination would I face? Would I even be welcome?

The anticlimax

After all the worrying, of course, things were fine. When I arrived, I was greeted at the registration desk by one of the folks I'd met on the IRC, and I shortly met others. A group of people were going to one of the several arrival dinners that happen at the event, and while I was sitting around deciding which place to go to eat, I discovered that I was not the only trans person at the conference at all.

By the end of the three-day conference, I would come to know that there were no less than five gender-variant people there. Outside of support groups and the waiting room at my doctor's office, this was the largest number I'd seen in one place since I had started transition. I gave a lightning talk about the Koha community, since so few seemed familiar with it, and got a lot of questions and discussion afterward. It was all very normal, really. I was in my element, talking about something I'm passionate about, with people who were interested in what I had to say. I really didn't want to leave! One attendee, when I went to go catch my ride, caught me at the door, hugged me, and said in my ear, "You're gorgeous. Have a safe trip."

Three years in

Since that first YAPC::NA, I've attended three more. All told, I've given full-length presentations at two, lightning talks at three, and am considered a consistent fixture in the Perl community, even if I'm not one of the most prolific coders in the group. Every year, I look forward to seeing these wonderful friends from all over the world. Granted, the Perl community, like much of the Western Hemisphere technology world, is dominated by white males. Despite that, if you look just a bit deeper, you'll see an amazing diversity start to emerge.

We are Perl people, and there our similarities—in many cases—come to an end. We are fans of science fiction, of fantasy, of mystery, of romances. Hardware hackers and people who want to see software that does amazing new things. Beer drinkers, wine drinkers, liquor lovers, and tee-totallers. Vegans, meat-eaters, paleo-dieters, and Weight Watchers. Gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, genderqueer, and asexuals. People of every faith on Earth, and no faith at all.

Despite all those variables, the Perl community gets along for the most part. Oh, we have our squabbles (particularly over technical matters), but the Perl community on the whole embraces the diverse viewpoints and diversity of expertise that come into it. Every year I get questions about the library world and how Perl is being used there.

What's your favorite geeking? Do you speak Perl? Then join in on the conversations. My own experience is that everyone who comes in good faith is welcome here.

in Open Source

This article is part of the Diversity in Open Source series to help foster an inclusive and welcoming environment by publishing a diverse range of voices on a variety of international open source topics.

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Ruth Holloway has been a system administrator and software developer for a long, long time, getting her professional start on a VAX 11/780, way back when. She spent a lot of her career (so far) serving the technology needs of libraries, and has been a contributor since 2008 to the Koha open source library automation suite. Ruth is currently a Perl developer and project lead at Clearbuilt.


Thanks for your story and widening my horizons. I know nothing of Perl except that it's a programming language. Is Koha written in Perl? What's the best way to get involved with contributing to a community of coders? What projects would you recommend for a newbie?

Perl is a really handy multi-purpose scripting language; Koha is written in Perl, as are a lot of other great web-based applications.

The best way, in my opinion, to get involved, is to find the thing or things you're passionate about, and start with that. If it's an end-user problem (like, in my case, library automation), then you end up in a project like Koha, that's end-user-facing. But if your passion is databases, or big data, or faster web pages, or something internal, there are coding communities working on those problems, too. For instance, if you're a fan of the fancy new "FooBase" database engine, writing a Perl library to talk to it would be a really useful thing to do! Start with your passions!

In reply to by Don Watkins

A great article. I had no idea that was your first YAPC (I don't get to all the US based ones). I personally remember fondly the best Lightning Talk of a Square Dance (and in particular quips about anyone can dance if a lady with a wooden leg can (my poor paraphrase). I hope one day you'll make it to a London Perl Workshop - get cPanel to send you over to talk to us.

Why, thank you, Mark! :D I'd love to make it over there some time!

In reply to by Mark Keating (not verified)

Perl has been on the decline despite underpinning so much of open source scripted applications, and obvious speed advantages compared to python. I do hope Perl 6 does pick things up again and restore it to its rightful place...python has been an easier alternative for beginners, and for Perl to regain momentum is certainly not trivial.

Connie, you're welcome to that perception, but the Perl community I hang out with has been continuing to grow steadily, with a number of major players contributing very large sums toward the Perl 5 Core Maintenance work of The Perl Foundation. The conference I talked about has grown year-over-year, with more sponsors each year (all of whom are hiring, it seems) and YAPC::Asia is a truly huge conference, up in the thousands of attendees, from what I hear.

It seems to be a common belief, despite that, that Perl 5 is outdated and less-than-useful, but there's an awful lot of code still being written in it. My focus in the article was less aimed at the language, and more at the amazing *people* in the Perl community.

In reply to by Connie (not verified)

I believe this YAPC was the second time I met you, and I'm glad to see this post. I think YAPC and the Perl community have done a great job of focusing on the content and the people. There is no need to focus on some crazy metrics, false inclusion or exclusion. It's all about the community that cares about common things. There was great fun with people of an amazingly diverse set of backgrounds, all intersecting, and yet bringing their own flavor to the party.

It's true! The community kind of collectively scoffed at the whole idea of Standards of Conduct for a while; a few folks seemed to think it would damp down the fun. But once it became clear that all it really does is enumerate "Don't be a jerk!" by explaining what is meant by that, the community moved along, and the increased attention to the "Don't be a jerk!" ethos has helped with some of the more outrageous characters.

In reply to by Jayce^ (not verified)

Your story even convinced me to learn perl instead of python!

99% of my site content is edited with a very very old OddMuse release on private servers, alongside WordPress.
OddMuse stays so 'responsive' and fast,
Since 30 yrs, I programmed much in C and VB even recenlty for a great Bank that use Perl for infra developments. There are so many languages it's difficult to invest in. JavaScript (I use TiddlyWiki 2, I patched to hta, as daily GTD) and Python would be hotter as universal languages. But I still haven't found enough reason and time to migrate to fantastic PmWiki.
Instead of using and patching Perl 'sur le tas', I would like to learn 'enfin' this universal language. Because I can't do without OddMuse.

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