Programming languages: How Python is building a developer community of millions

Ewa Jodlowska, the Python Software Foundation's outgoing executive director, says Python 'will go down in history' - but there is still plenty of work to be done.

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Image: Shutterstock

The Python Software Foundation (PSF) has been the driving force behind the Python project since 2001. As well as managing the license for the open-source programming language, the non-profit organization is charged with supporting the growth of the Python community – a vast and globe-spanning network comprising upwards of 10.1 million developers, many of whom contribute to the language's ongoing development.

Yet things can take time when you're largely reliant on part-time volunteers to keep things moving forward, particularly when each contributor has their own interest in the language.

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"I think it's something we've learned to live with," says Ewa Jodlowska, who stepped down from her role as the PSF's executive director in early December.

"I don't think it's an issue, it just takes a lot longer to do anything because getting community consensus around any kind of direction or change takes a long time. In Python and a lot of open-source communities, decisions don't come top-down: they come from making sure that the community is involved in the discussion."

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Community has always been central to Python. Only a handful of developers work on the core programming language full-time, with much of the contributions to the code coming from an army of volunteers.

Rallying that army requires a significant amount of outreach, and a strong, collaborative community dedicated to advancing Python. "Building the outreach structure and having that grow to a global community has been tremendous and probably my favourite part of the work that we did," Jodlowska tells ZDNet.

"If it wasn't for that outreach and taking the time to make sure that people all over the world could have the funds to actually learn Python and all that good stuff, it wouldn't be the number one language as it is today."

Jodlowska spent more than a decade at the PSF, having started as an event coordinator in 2011 and stepping into the role of executive director in 2019. Much of her leadership tenure was spent navigating the uncertain waters of the pandemic.

Two years of global uncertainty has inevitably created setbacks for the PSF and put some of its wider ambitions on ice – particularly with the cancellation of PyCon in 2020, which prompted the PSF to look for new ways of funding Python that were less reliant on the conference.

"We probably lost about $600,000 in expected revenue that we didn't get, which kind of set back a lot of the goals that [the PSF] had set for the year," says Jodlowska.

Still, the PSF battled through – in great success, Jodlowska adds, all things considered, with the organization still able to bring on full-time developers in 2021 – director in residence Łukasz Langa was hired in July 2021, with Shamika Mohanan stepping on board as packaging project manager the following month.

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Ewa Jodlowska had been involved with the Python Project for more than a decade.

Image: PSF

"When you consider hiring a core dev for full time, you know that that's a good amount of investment that you're putting in there. But we were able to still do that. A lot of sponsors kind of stepped up to provide grants for us to be able to fill those gaps and still deliver on those goals."

Corporate sponsorship remains important for Python. Microsoft, for example, is propelling efforts to significantly speed up the programming language, led by Guido van Rossum and Mark Shannon, whereas it is thanks to Google that the PSF was able to fund the developer-in-residence role now held by Łukasz Langa.

But corporations will always have commercial interests at back of mind. With van Rossum no longer at the helm of the Python project, it will be up to the Python Steering Council to maintain stewardship of the programming language and ensure changes to the language serve the entire developer community.

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Jodlowska identifies this as a key challenge for the Python project's governance going forward: "There still has to be some sort of collaboration and check-in, understanding transparency [and] making sure that user use cases are being taken into consideration when changes are being made by these teams, which I feel is something that the Steering Council is going to have to come to terms with very soon."

Something the PSF is currently looking at is how it can better understand the needs of its users, and contribute to the development of the Python programming language accordingly. Core development and packaging – which Jodlowska says is a "hot topic these days" – sits near the top of this list, and with Langa now tackling CPython's sizable maintenance backlogs, it is hoped more resources will be freed up for R&D, especially on things like Python for Web.

"There has been work done, but not a lot of work has gotten a lot of the momentum. I think partially, again, that comes from the scenario that a lot of that work is being done by volunteers, and this is a substantial amount of work."

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Jodlowska also hopes to see the PSF champion diversity and inclusion. "That's one of the things that I hope core development spends a lot more time in the future – not just R&D stuff, but also making sure that we can diversify maintainers and core developers."

In terms of her own next moves, Jodlowska is stepping into the cybersecurity space. While she describes her departure from the PSF as "bittersweet," Jodlowska is confident that the future of Python is bright.

"I would say that one of the things that Python is going to go down in history for is not being just a language that people use as a career path, but something that people use in other careers just to support the work that they're already doing," she adds.

"I have goosebumps thinking about it. It's kind of sad that I won't be a part of it, but I will definitely be cheering on all their work from the sidelines."

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