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Python at 30 (and a bit): From boredom to the boardroom

As the glue for large software components, Python has untold benefits.

In February 2021, Python celebrated its 30th anniversary. Unless you’ve been living under a rock – like its reptilian namesake – you’ll be familiar with the much-loved programming language, which has grown (and grown) in popularity since it was first launched in 1991, writes Pablo Galindo, Software Engineer at Bloomberg & Python Steering Council Member

Python’s creator, Guido van Rossum, initially conceived the language as a hobby programming project to keep himself busy. Thirty years on, the fact that Python sits as the world’s second most popular programming language, according to RedMonk, is testament to its versatility and accessibility.

Reasons for its longstanding success can be attributed to Python’s low barrier to entry and capability for experimentation. If you learn one piece of the language, you can connect it to the rest very easily. Sure, there are some symbols and conventions you need to learn, but they map seamlessly with one another.

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Unlike compiled languages, you don’t need to compile your code and get feedback later; it’s much more instant. Other languages have similar features, but few are as well balanced and easily integrated as Python, which is why it has such strong appeal in business environments, as well as with hobbyists and people first learning how to code.

Since its launch, we’ve seen countless programming languages come and go. But Python, it seems, is just getting started, providing the backbone for some of the globe’s biggest brands, such as Bloomberg, Google, NASA, and Netflix.

Binding the business landscape

Perhaps one of the biggest appeals of Python to businesses is its capability as a gluing language. In other words, Python is an advanced scripting language that can be used to successfully glue together large software components. This includes the capability of Python to be extended by integrating compiled code for high performance computing or even to reuse large pre-existing codebases written in other languages.

For organizations of all shapes and sizes, this can bring untold benefits, as syntactically, Python code looks like executable pseudo code. By using Python, development can be as much as ten times faster than using C/C++ and five times faster than using Java.

In addition, an application prototype can be developed in Python without writing in any other programming language. Often, these prototypes are functional enough to be delivered as the final product – saving businesses significant development time.

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However, beyond its gluing and usage capabilities, it always helps to have the backing of global giants. Just as C# has Microsoft, Java had Sun, and PHP is used by Facebook, Google adopted Python heavily back in 2006 and has continued to invest in its development and through its support of the Python Software Foundation (PSF).

Interestingly, it was Python that first enabled YouTube to compete with other competitors – and Google will also use a blend of Java, JavaScript, C++ and of course, Python, to meet different objectives.

Ultimately, Python is extensible with other languages and therefore indispensable to businesses. It is the “one language that binds them all” – and it is for these binding qualities that Python is one of three first-class programming languages at Bloomberg.

Python and Bloomberg

Today, we have more than 100 million lines of Python code and some 2,000+ of our nearly 6,500 software engineers rely on the language to code many of our flagship products. We are also a long-time sponsor of the PSF.

Despite our already heavy use of Python, it continues to exceed our expectations and we’re now using the language for many things that were once considered beyond its means. For example, a considerable portion of several performance-critical parts of our infrastructure are written in Python. Traditionally, nobody might ever have thought to use a non-compiled language when developing these kinds of applications.

Just like Google, we use the likes of C++ for large, complex distributed systems. Sometimes, you don’t always need extreme levels of performance; you need a good developer experience to get things in front of clients, fast. In those instances, Python will often win out over other languages because development cycles are far shorter.

Python is also a much safer language (in the sense that it does automatic memory management for example) and harder to crash (this is when software hard-fails without a comprehensive explanation or a recoverable condition) compared to some compiler languages. Above all, its versatility knows no bounds – and its increasing stature as a leader in web development, infrastructure management, and the analyses of data will only increase its value to businesses like ours.

The future of Python

I have been a CPython core developer since June of 2018. In this exciting period for Python, I feel privileged to have recently been elected to the Python Steering Council. Since Guido stepped down in 2018, the Steering Council is responsible for deciding and guiding the evolution and direction of the language, which is in the midst of important changes.

In recent years, we’ve seen Python’s application in the field of data science reach new heights, which has only enhanced its worth to companies like Bloomberg. But the Steering Council and the Python core development team are constantly considering innovative ways to grow and improve the language, which requires us to work closely with the wider Python Community.

Our passionate and vocal community is undoubtedly another reason for the success of Python. Our role on the Council involves listening to all possible groups in the community and amplifying their voices in order to make the language as effective as it possibly can be.

Of course, this is never without its challenges. Decisions made by the core developers and the Steering Council can often polarize the wider community of users. Every grammar change or a tweak to the syntax of the language provokes a reaction – just like any normal language. So, to drive the whole ecosystem forward, it’s our job to incorporate this feedback in order to make the language more accessible and effective. We always try to seek consensus and to reflect that in the end product. Although the community is sometimes fractured about some specific changes, they should feel confident that lots of consideration and careful thought go into our decision-making.

If the past 30 years are anything to go by, Python’s importance in the business landscape will only continue to grow. Bloomberg’s investment in Python and our support for the Python Software Foundation are central to this – and enriches the symbiotic relationship our staff has with the wider community.

In a time when global lockdowns have probably introduced more boredom than ever before, I find it quite fitting that Guido created this life-changing language to keep his brain busy. So, who knows, maybe the next big programming language is being created in someone’s bedroom as we speak?

Either way, you can rest assured that Python will be able to mingle and interoperate with it – and that’s why Python will continue to be a talking point in boardrooms around the world, as this lifeblood of the programming community appears on more and more business agendas.

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