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The i-Technology Right Stuff

Searching for the Twenty Top Software People in the World

 

Larry Brilliant

 

Brief Description: Cofounder in 1984 of the WELL bulletin board

Further Details:

"If baby boomers had their own Faust, he'd be Larry Brilliant, a man who's found himself at the center of almost every defining moment of his generation." That was how Fast Company characterized Dr Larry Brilliant, in an article published in October 2000 that continued:

"There are people in Silicon Valley who are more successful than Larry Brilliant. And there are people in Silicon Valley who are richer than he is. But there are few who have had more impact on the world at large than he has."

In the early 1970s, when smallpox was devastating that country, Brilliant - having finished his surgical internship at Presbyterian Hospital in San Francisco in 1970 - spearheaded a (successful) campaign to eradicate the disease from India. He helped run the WHO smallpox eradication program in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh; was a staff member of the WHO "Global Commission to Certify Smallpox Eradicated" in Burma, India, Nepal, and Iran; and served as the last UN inspector to visit Iran to search for hidden smallpox.

The author of two books and dozens of articles on the epidemiology of smallpox, blindness, and environmental diseases, he has worked at city, county, state, federal, and international levels. Larry is also the founder of the Seva Foundation, which has performed 2 million free sight-restoring eye operations in India and Nepal. But he has a subsequent career as a technologist.

Together with Stewart Brand he conjured up the idea of The WELL, which in 1984 became one of the first expressions of online community, a gathering place for many of the brightest minds, the fiercest pioneers, and the keenest explorers of the just-gathering new economy. "It was the first electronic community," says Brilliant. Brand ran the WELL for 10 years before he and Brilliant agreed to sell it in parts in 1993 and in 1995. It is now owned by SALON.

Brilliant was also CEO of two public technology corporations (SoftNet Systems Inc. and Network Technologies), before founding the WiFi company, Cometa, in 2003 - which soon became the premier provider of wholesale 802.11 bandwidth in the United States. Brilliant served as its vice chairman until 2003 hen he returned to the Seva Foundation as Chairman of the organization during its silver anniversary year to chart an expansion of the organization's programs into new regions and countries and strengthen its management and financial capacity to provide more life-giving care.

As it was once, aptly, said: "Larry Brilliant appears to be living two full lives simultaneously."

Other SYS-CON stories about Larry Brilliant:

Building out Wi-Fi: Cometa's cofounder and interim CEO, Larry Brilliant, talks to Wi-Fi editor Ron Dennis about "Project Rainbow"

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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Most Recent Comments
Fuzzy 12/11/04 10:49:41 AM EST

Rick Adams - Bnews
Eric Allman - sendmail
Ken Arnold - curses, rogue, Jini
Dan Bernstein - qmail
Keith Bostic - BSD
James Clark - groff, expat
Alan Cox - Linux
Theo de Raadt - OpenBSD
Edsger Dijkstra - Algol60
Robert Elz -
Guy Harris -
Jordan Hubbard - NetBSD
Van Jacobson - tcpdump, traceroute, TCP flow control
Mike Karels - BSD
Phil Karn - KA9Q NOS
Donald Knuth - TeX
John McCarthy - LISP
Doug McIlroy - UNIX
Kirk McKusick - BSD
Perry Metzger - NetBSD
Robin Milner - ML
Arnold Robbins - gawk
Rich Salz - NNTP
Donn Seeley - BSD
Henry Spencer - Cnews, regex
Avadis Tevanian - Mach
Chris Torek - BSD
Paul Vixie - BINDv8
Larry Wall - perl, rn, patch
Niklaus Wirth - Pascal

Rafael Ebron 12/11/04 10:47:04 AM EST

How about Brendan Eich, the inventor of JavaScript (probably the most widely used programming language), and also the Chief Architect of the Mozilla Project.  He should easily be in the top 20. 

robert 12/11/04 10:38:50 AM EST

Can't have a "Top x Software People" without Larry Wall... 20, or even 40, must be too small a number.

Talking of female geeks 12/11/04 10:37:51 AM EST

Grace Hopper beats anyone on this list, frankly. There's more COBOL doing more real work right now (like debiting and crediting your bank accounts) than, say, Turbo Pascal and C#. (Come on.) And that's decades after her innovation.

rxmd 12/11/04 10:33:06 AM EST

<>Lovelace was the mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage and invented the first computer programming language. We should all have remembered her since there's even a Pascal-descended language named after her today, Ada.

Charles Babbage's Difference Engine isn't really that much about programming, in spite of the book by Gibson/Sterling. His Analytical Engine is more like it, but this one never got built, being too complex for mid-19th-century mechanics.

Calling Ada Lovelace the first programmer is a bit off, too. She wrote a translation of Babbage's work along with a commentary on how to build the Analytical Engine, including some notes on how it might be programmed, but then, the machine she's supposed to have been programming didn't even exist. Even though her work wasn't really that influential in the long run (similar to Babbage's), she was one of the first to actually reflect on how such a machine might be programmed, though. And she was probably the first female geek in recorded history. ;)

grabity 12/11/04 10:33:06 AM EST

It seems to me that starting the list at 100 or 80 may have been more appropriate. Wozniak, Jobbs, Gates, Ellison, Knuth, The GoF. We're standing on the shoulders of giants. In fact, why even narrow it to 20. None of us would do what we do today without the forefathers of the industry. I think its great that we're recognizing some of them. But how do you say that there were 20 who were more important than the rest.

Lee Brody 12/11/04 10:30:59 AM EST

Ok, so what's Bill Gates?? Chopped liver???

All you assholes are basically working in the computer industry because of him and a few other pioneers that saw the writing on the wall back in the late 70's.

Isn't is amazing how success breeds contempt! Talk about the continuing 'dumbing down' of America!

Lee Brody

datadriven 12/11/04 10:29:44 AM EST

Patrick Volkerding isn't on the list, but Klaus Knopper is? WTF?

Henrik S. Hansen 12/11/04 10:26:00 AM EST

Jamie Zawinski deserves a nomination. Among many other things, he was instrumental in the creation of Lucid Emacs (now XEmacs), bringing many innovations to the Emacs world.
On another note, the list is stupid. I mean, why choose the creator of SOAP, yet another (little-known?) protocol, over so many others? And who is Ann Winblad?

Eric Raymond (however controversial) definitely also deserves to be in the list.

Exter-C 12/11/04 10:24:41 AM EST

At the end of the day there is no way there is a Top 20. There has been so much good and bad software written some bad software even has been very innovative and often has features/taken stolen from it for better future software products.

Where is the top 100 software programmers.. that would at least be more including and give a better all round result of the industry

jon crowcroft 12/11/04 10:22:55 AM EST

people that wrote stuff we all use: len bosack - cisco IOS; van jacobson & other berkeley folk - the TCP stack; linus torvalds & alan cox: linux etc; the apache folks; the people that keep netscape going. who wrote matlab? kazaa? frankly, the article has a list of people who are already well known for marketing, but not for lines of working workaday, ultra-dependable, code that we can use and build other things on.

well 12/11/04 10:16:48 AM EST

where is Diksrta and Father of TeX, well, I forgot his name :)

lilnoyd 12/11/04 10:14:09 AM EST

Wheres linus?

Chris Holmes 12/11/04 09:58:32 AM EST

No, Bill Gates' work is _not_ highly derivative. The man crammed an entire BASIC interpreter into the TRS-80 Model 100 (one of the first laptops ever built) and fit it in a 32K rom. Gates is a phenomenally brilliant programmer. People just have a problem with his business ethics.
And wow, so the inventor of Python made it but Larry Wall, who has done a lot more than just Perl (Patch anyone?), didn't.

lance berc 12/11/04 09:57:16 AM EST

Ok, you can include everyone, but to omit Butler Lampson is really something.
Among his achievements:

Inventor of Ethernet (along w/Thacker, Boggs, and Metcalf)
Architect of Cedar/Mesa (morphed into every strongly-typed RPC-based software
system)
Implementer of Xerox Alto (morphed into Macintosh)
Architect of Xerox D-machine (Dorado, Dandelion) sw (led to Smalltalk,
Interlisp-D, etc)
Architect of Press (morphed into Postscript)
Author of numerous software security seminal papers
Major contributions in systems design, operating systems, language design &
implementation
Turing Award winner

And you didn't include Don Knuth, either.

Have you no shame?

julesh 12/11/04 09:44:23 AM EST

sandbar sally commented: okay, I know this isn't going to be a very popular comment on this site but, seriously, how does any list of this type not include Bill Gates? Or is this just a list of the "top 20 software people who we like"?

Gates' programming work is all highly derivitive. He mainly worked on MS's BASIC interpreter, I believe. Nothing brilliant. You'll note, however, that Dave Cutler, author of the Windows NT kernel (and thus Win2K and WinXP by extension) _is_ on the list. That's software to the people.

Pathetic Coward 12/11/04 09:42:03 AM EST

The only reason to have Ann Winblad is to piss off Bill Gates - his ex-girlfriend is here; he isn't.

anon 12/11/04 09:36:44 AM EST

aur?lien commented:
Also: Donald Knuth of "The Art of Computer Programming" fame.

Knuth, like a lot of these "top twenty", are just Ivory Tower academics with no real applications in industry. Where is Bill Gates? He bought computing to the people. Whoever made VB should also be mentioned.

pjt33 12/11/04 09:35:04 AM EST

So what about Martin Richards, who designed the <>BCPL Cintcode System?

binary42 12/11/04 09:32:40 AM EST

That and where is Yukihiro Matsumoto? I would be nowhere today without the three scripting language fathers.

Oh well... the list would be too long as there are many more that i can think of.

PerlBarley 12/11/04 09:31:42 AM EST

Spot on, trinity93: Larry Wall's an open-source hero for developing Perl

trinity93 12/11/04 09:30:07 AM EST

Who ever wrote this list is on crack if they are gona omit Larry Wall

andrew 12/11/04 09:13:26 AM EST

yep. no Steele... no Knuth... come on!

Sean 12/11/04 09:11:19 AM EST

W. Richard Stevens and Douglas Comer: TCP/IP gurus.

Hehehe 12/11/04 09:10:41 AM EST

Okay it's great that Dijkstra is here, remembered by one of the many posters to this thread. But it's worth including him not just for his contributions to the development of compilers but also for his wonderful contrarian comments, like this one about OO: "Object-oriented programming is an exceptionally bad idea which could only have originated in California."

Trinity 12/11/04 09:07:59 AM EST

What About Lary Wall? Perl is in more use than just about any programing laungage in the world!

aurélien 12/11/04 08:43:41 AM EST

Well, what about Guy L. Steele of Maclisp, Scheme, Common Lisp and Java fame ? It's quite unbelievable that nobody mentions him !

Also : Donald Knuth of "The Art of Computer Programming" fame.

Rüdiger Klaehn 12/11/04 08:41:36 AM EST

What about john backus? Not only did he invent fortran, he also pioneered functional programming. So he has a big influence on the oldest and most very modern languages. If he is not in there, the whole thing is a joke.

FORTRAN's missing 12/11/04 08:27:42 AM EST

How about John Backus, inventor (with IBM) if FORTRAN - the first successful high level programming language

EWd 12/11/04 06:20:39 AM EST

As Amitava pointed out in an earlier post, the Dutch computing scientist ought to be in this Top Twenty. Edsger W. Dijkstra died in 2002 aged 72 but we all remember him for his contributions to the development of compilers - and also for his memorable run-in with Harry D. Huskey, inventor of the SWAC.

He won a Turing Award in '72, and it was then that he said: "The competent programmer is fully aware of the strictly limited size of his own skull; therefore he approaches the programming task in full humility, and among other things he avoids clever tricks like the plague."

Wonderful man.

Remembering Ada 12/11/04 04:12:36 AM EST

there should maybe be a separate, parallel list of The Most Fundamental Software People in the World - that's where TBL belongs I think, along with folks like someone you've all forgotten: Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace - known widely as just "Ada Lovelace."

Lovelace was the mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage and invented the first computer programming language. We should all have remembered her since there's even a Pascal-descended language named after her today, Ada.

Apple-eater 12/11/04 03:59:33 AM EST

"The Woz" was a good omission to pick up on, Stephen P.

One look at www.woz.org is enough to remind anyone: Steve gave out schematics and code listings of what was in effect the protoype of the first Apple in 1974 - he'd designed a terminal of his own in order to access the Arpanet.

Mike M 12/10/04 10:56:04 PM EST

I think Nat Friedman of (ximian) should be included and 'twould be shameful to not include him in the poll.

Stephen P 12/10/04 07:01:27 PM EST

How about the fathers of the Internet (ARPANET) -- Vint Cerf "father of the internet" and Bob Metcalfe (creator of Ethernet) are pretty well known names; Doug Englebart (http://www.ibiblio.org/pioneers/englebart.html) not so widely known but amazingly ahead of times. See "Internet Pioneers" (http://www.ibiblio.org/pioneers/) for brief biographies. We wouldn't be casting this vote online if not for these people.

P.S. sandbar sally - Gates should be on a list of top 20 marketing geniuses, but he personally has done very little to advance computing. I'd put Steve Wozniak on the list instead.

Amitava 12/10/04 06:22:23 PM EST

What a shame !

A list of software people with names of Tim O'Reilly, Danny Hillis, Jean Paoli in them but without the likes of Backus, Brooks, Codd, Dijkstra, Hopper . . . ?

Rob Verschoor 12/10/04 06:13:08 PM EST

Where's Edsger Dijkstra -- inventor of the semaphore?

sandbar sally 12/10/04 05:49:28 PM EST

okay, I know this isn't going to be a very popular comment on this site but, seriously, how does any list of this type not include Bill Gates? Or is this just a list of the "top 20 software people who we like"?

Relationality 12/10/04 03:01:41 PM EST

For my money this 'Top Twenty' is going to be lacking something if it doesn't include the Father of Relational Databases, Ted Codd.

Dr Edgar F. Codd is one of the great names in computing. In 1969 he circulated an internal paper within IBM on an idea for improving databases by combining set theory, the concept of "tables" (called "relations" in some circles), and related mathematics. The idea was further developed and published in 1970 to become one of the greatest research papers in computer history.

Kay No WaaaYYY 12/10/04 12:41:56 PM EST

I disagree. Alan Kay is a failure and an over the hill has-been. While Smalltalk was revolutionary, it failed to revolutionize anything. And even after 20 years, the Dynabook still doesn't exist.

What has Alan done since Smalltalk? What's he done in the past 20 years? Alan has reimplemented Smalltalk in the Squeak project. Wow!

SqueakSmalltalk 12/10/04 12:39:32 PM EST

Never mind Charles Babbage, what about- in modern times - the inventor of Smalltalk, Alan Kay. Didn't he originally coin the term "Object-Oriented"? and also the phrase "The best way to predict the future is to invent it" - He even did something at Disney: he led the Squeak project. (http://www.squeak.org) He developed the e-toys and the others developed all the support software. He is one of the top 20 software people in the world, for sure.

Babbageer 12/10/04 12:31:19 PM EST

Going even further back, I wonder where Charles Babbage would fit in this list? He was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1828 (the Chair held by Isaac Newton and - somewhat more recently - by Stephen Hawking), and without his 'calculating machines' we'd none of us be joining in this online discussion nesrly 180 years later!

Silly Billy 12/10/04 10:01:37 AM EST

Did anyone notice: no one nominated a certain "chief software architect" of a biggish company based in the north-west. Interesting ;-)

Paul Wright 12/10/04 09:55:17 AM EST

Funny... I couldn't vote for father of Java or father of C# & Turbo Pascal compiler. It appears that the URL isn't properly formed. Just a bug I'm sure.

USA vs Rest of the World 12/10/04 06:18:47 AM EST

this looks a lot like an mostly-american team to me. It would be a nice story to talk about the twenty best all-americans, but it's not the point

That's far from the case. Both Anders Hejlsberg (C#) and Bjarne Stroustrup (C++) are as Danish as Hans Christian Andersen. Klaus Knopper (Knoppix) is German, Jean Paoli (XML/Microsoft) is French, and of course Linus Torvalds is from Finland. Alan Turing, the father of it all, computer science itself and AI, was British.

That software developers gravitate toward the USA is one thing; but that's where the action has been for 40 years. For even longer, in Turning's case.

Thierry Coq 12/10/04 05:58:57 AM EST

Other omissions :
- what about Nicklaus Wirth ? inventor of Pascal (and Oberon) and
- what about Jean D Ichbiah ? inventor of Ada 83 ?

Two comments :
- I agree with the other commentators, it looks like a lot of oldies were forgotten...
- also, this looks a lot like an mostly-american team to me. It would be a nice story to talk about the twenty best all-americans, but it's not the point of this list

Eanna Butler 12/10/04 04:56:38 AM EST

What about the old school, the true pioneers: George Boole, von Neumann, Atanasoff, Cecil Green, Ada Lovelace, Donald Knuth, Herman Hollerith, Clocksin, Mellish, Howard Aiken, Seymore Cray...

Where's Marc A.? 12/09/04 07:17:44 PM EST

Can the era the era that Netscape helped launch, and which catapulted Marc Andreessen into the pantheon of late 20th-century geek superstars, really be so far away now that NO ONE even thought to nominate him for this poll in the 21st?

Seems like 50 years ago now, but really it's not.

How About Carl? 12/09/04 06:42:27 PM EST

No software developer Top Twenty would be complete without mention of Carl Sassenrath - who wrote a new scripting language for computers called REBOL.

More Runners? 12/09/04 05:05:45 PM EST

Adding to the ones who didn't get nominated but maybe ought to have been: how about Doug Englebart (of mouse fame), and Grace Murray Hopper (for COBOL)?

omission? 12/09/04 04:10:23 AM EST

Cool list. No mention of though of Linus's No. 2 in the kernel group, Andrew Morton.

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