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Pioneer Programmer Brian J. Fox on Championing Open Source

Pioneer Programmer Brian J. Fox on Championing Open Source

Sep 8, 2020

Follow the White Rabbit podcastStart Listening

When Brian J. Fox, Co-founder of Orchid and the original author of the GNU Bash shell, started out as a pioneer programmer, it was the free exchange of creative ideas that drove advances in computer science. So it ran completely counter Brian's open source philosophy when corporations such as Microsoft wanted to encase software in intellectual property rights in order to charge license fees.

Brian landed a position as the first employee of the Free Software Foundation and has been advocating ever since for open source, including in his current role as founder of Orchid to help build a surveillance-free Internet.

In the mid-1970s, when computers were becoming a commodity, there was no such thing as closed source. There was no reason to prevent people from looking at source code." Brian said on the latest episode of the Follow the White Rabbit podcast. "The people who could understand it didn't hide their ideas, they shared their ideas because the group has a better chance of achieving success than the individual."

Brian tells how he grew up where family dinner table conversation would turn to physics and helped turn him into a problem-solver. Instrumental in his early love for programming was a local Radio Shack retail store that catered to hobbyists. The staff had an early computer for sale but no way of demonstrating the product because nobody knew how to use it -- until, that is, Brian taught himself sitting at the keyboard inside the store.

From those curious beginnings, Brian launched a career that would see him go on to author Bash, which has become by far the most popular shell among users of Linux and the default interactive shell on that operating system's various distributions.

Any computer that a human being interacts with definitely runs a Bash shell," Brian said.

On the podcast episode, Brian also recounts how his pioneering programming continued. In 1995, he authored the first online banking software -- for Wells Fargo -- ushering one of the industry's biggest technological innovations. "That was the first bank to have Web-based banking in the United States. All the other banks were waiting to find out if all the money would be stolen, and, then, when it wasn't stolen, they were like: 'this is good, we can do it too.'"

After Brian then built several companies, he came to understand his passion lay in helping start companies and that brought him to Orchid where he could help solve the problem of an Internet that had stopped being a place to explore freely.

I love that startup phase. I love the early phase where there is a lot of creativity, a lot of problem solving and a lot of architecture that goes into the problem-solving, and how to build rock-solid engineering, how to make it accessible to other programmers and to other professionals so they can build on that. This is all building on my open source experience." 

To learn more about Brian's journey, follow us down the rabbit hole: listen to the conversation here or on your favorite streaming service.

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