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Key Perl Core developer quits, says he was bullied for daring to suggest programming language contained ‘cruft’

On Monday, the Perl Core developer known as Sawyer X announced his intention to leave the three-person Perl Steering Committee, or Council, and the Perl Core group because of what he described as community hostility.

Sawyer X, who became “pumpking” – manager of the core Perl 5 language – in 2016 when he took over that role from Ricardo Signes, explained his rationale for departing in a post to a Perl discussion list.

“Due to the continuous abusive behavior by prominent Perl community members and just about anyone else who also feels entitled to harass me (and unfortunately, other Core developers), I am stepping down from the Steering Council, from the Perl security list, and from the Perl Core,” Sawyer said, adding that he is stepping down from the Perl Foundation’s Grants Committee and that he will not be speaking at or attending the next Perl conference.

“The Perl Foundation will publish a fuller response in due course once we understand more about the situation that led up to Sawyer’s recent announcement,” the organization said. “However I can say that we are saddened to learn of Sawyer’s statement of resignation.”

Sawyer X’s disaffection with the volunteer-based Perl community further complicates the road ahead for the programming language, damaged over the past two decades by cannibalization from PHP and Python, incompatibility between Perl 5 and Perl 6 (renamed Raku in recognition of that schism), and recent governance troubles in part related to disagreements about the planned release of Perl 7 and backward compatibility.

The precipitating interaction, as Sawyer X tells it, followed after he opined to other Core developers on a mailing list that there is “cruft,” or poorly written or superseded code, in Perl – not exactly an outrageous claim for a language that has been around since 1987.

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“After saying this, I immediately received hostile messages – how dare I suggest we recognize there is cruft (and that we would be happy if it weren’t there),” he recounted. “After all, there are emails by a few Core developers (who are on this list) that say otherwise.”

Sawyer X described the responses he received as “just one example in a chain of continuous bullying and hostility I’ve been receiving in recent years, especially in the last year, at the hands of Perl community members.”

Nonetheless, he plans to shepherd the release of Perl 5.3.4, planned for May, 2021.

The health of open source projects has a lot to do with the feelings of acceptance and camaraderie among those who contribute their time, energy, and code. Community, and how to sustain it, is a frequent topic at open source conferences. If Sawyer X’s sentiments about the Perl world are shared by others, it’s not a good sign to the language’s longevity.

However, one of the individuals involved in the fracas, Perl developer Christian Walde (Mithaldu), disputes the accusations and, following a brief apology, has documented discussions related to the alleged “cruft” afflicting Perl.

“I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to word myself in a way that did not feel to him like I’m going after him at the same time, I do not believe I deserve the accusations,” said Walde.

In a Reddit post, Dan Book, known as Grinnz in the Perl community, offered an interpretation of events similar to that proposed by Walde.

“In my view, every reply to Sawyer was necessary to challenge the information presented publicly by an authority figure,” he said.

“I am sorry he apparently interpreted it as bullying, but I am not sure what response would have not constituted such to him, or if it was simply because of one of the people he replied to. Authority comes with responsibility for your public words.”

Therein lies the difficulty with open source work – people have different expectations about the permissible range of interpersonal interaction and different definitions about toxic behavior. Instituting rituals and rules that suit everyone isn’t easy. ®

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