Mark Shuttleworth and the Art of Software Engineering

By Kurt Cagle
July 24, 2008 | Comments: 1

Mark Shuttleworth's life to date seems more like the daring hero of a science fiction pulp magazine than that of a programmer. A South African programmer working on the earliest Debian code, he founded a company called Thawte which specialized in digital certificates and internet security, which he sold to Verisign in the waning days of the tech bubble in 1999 for half a billion dollars US. By 2000 Shuttleworth created a venture capital company (HBD Venture Capital) and the next year he created the Shuttleworth Foundation to help fund the development of open source software for educational, free and open software.

In 2002, he headed for Russia to spend nine months training in order to become a "citizen cosmonaut" - the second such private citizen and the first African to fly aboard the Soyuz TM-34 in order to spend eight days as a researcher aboard the International Space Station. After returning to earth, Shuttleworth launched Canonical, a company that took the Debian Linux distribution and turned it into Ubuntu, which has rapidly managed to displace Red Hat, SUSE, and other Linux distributions as the most widely disseminated and popular Linux distribution ever. Ubuntu, which means "humanity" in Zulu, in turn become the preferred distribution for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative while simultaneously becoming the Linux distribution of choice on WalMart's Linux-based computers.

In Portland, Oregon for the 2008 O'Reilly Open Source Conference (OSCON), Mark Shuttleworth gave the keynote address opening the conference, eloquently laying out what he saw as the mission that open source in general, and Ubuntu in particular, need to achieve.

According to Shuttleworth, Open Source represents not only an acceptable "alternative" to mainstream development but is in fact driving how software itself is being developed, and by extension will, over time, drive economic and social changes of an increasingly dramatic nature. The open source model is shifting how innovation "happens", moving away from a single player ecosystem to instead become one in which innovation occurs in a decentralized fashion where the creations of one innovator are then picked up by another innovator elsewhere in the programming community, and the work of both of these innovators in turn provide the fuel for innovation by a third person or group. Such an innovation model is chaotic and somewhat darwinian, driving several lines of development at once, supported by a rich diversity of ideas, backgrounds and goals.

In conjunction with this, this moving innovative wave affects both societal and economic patterns, favoring organizations and small to mid-sized companies that communicate through the rich ether of the Internet in order to develop software that solves not a fiduciary need but rather real-world problems. However, as the layer of open source software has become more sophisticated and standards have developed up and down the open source stack, this in turn has meant that these applications have formed into a tapestry that is now transitioning to the next level - one where the goal of software development is not just to build solid, reliable and powerful applications, but is also intended for the purpose of making such software aesthetic.

In the end, Shuttleworth summarized by saying that the next stage of software application is not to enhance the art of software engineering, but to engineer that software so that the craft of software creation itself becomes art, as software becomes usable, intuitive, easily comprehensible, capable and eminently useful. For someone who has built two multi-billion companies, performed science experiments in space, worked on providing tools to make education free and made Linux appealing to the world, making software as an expression of the highest embodiment of human art seems only appropriate for Mark Shuttleworth, Space Ranger!

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Very good article. Keep up more like this.

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