Brian Fox is a titan of open source software. As the first employee of Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation, he wrote several core GNU components, including the GNU Bash shell. Now he’s a board member of the National Association of Voting Officials and co-founder of Orchid Labs, which delivers uncensored and private internet access to users such as those behind China’s firewall. We talked to him about his career and how he works.
Location: Santa Barbara, CA
Current gig: Co-founder Orchid Labs
One word that best describes how you work: Passionately.
Current mobile device: There’s an iPhone 7 in my pocket.
Current computer: My daily driver is a MacBook.
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I first recall being interested in technology at the age of six. My father, a physicist at Bolt, Beranek and Newman, had a teletype machine in the basement of the house we were living in. It connected to BBN via a modem. The baud rate was probably around 110bps – quite low. I used to hold down the CTRL key while pressing “G”, which would cause the bell to ring.
At age eight I was a guinea pig in a Wally Feurzeig experiment involving his new Logo language. At age 21 I wrote Terrapin Logo for the Apple //e. At age 23 I wrote the Amacs text editor for the Apple ][, //e, and //gs computers, which was a faithful implementation of the Emacs editor at that time, complete with dynamically loadable libraries, M-x completion and multiple language modes.
At age 25 I became the first paid programmer working with Richard Stallman at the newly formed Free Software Foundation, where I worked on Project GNU, a completely free (as in speech, not as in beer) replacement for commercial Unix. I wrote the TexInfo documentation system. At age 27 I authored the Bash shell.
In 1995 I created the first web-based online banking solution in the United States for Wells Fargo, and then immediately after that I created a new web-based programming language called Meta-HTML. I became an entrepreneur, creating and working with startup companies for the past 19 years. I care about freedom. I created a completely open source voting system in 2007. I joined with my other four co-founders in 2017 to create the Orchid Protocol for a truly decentralised, surveillance-free internet.
Take us through a recent workday.
I wake up relatively early, often at 5AM. I read emails and current events information. I hack on various projects for an hour or so before helping my kids get to school. I write answers to FAQs, to interview articles. I meet with people, and we discuss Orchid and how to keep making it better. I drink too much coffee and not enough water. I either enjoy a social lunch where we explore ideas related to new technology or make predictions about the future, or I skip lunch in order to hack.
In the evening I go home, eat dinner, and communicate with my family. I might watch a TV show, such as The Orville, or I might do some more hacking. I’m asleep by midnight or so.
What apps, gadgets or tools can’t you live without?
A good keyboard. A reasonable mouse. A pair of monitors. My phone, unfortunately. Emacs. Bash.
What’s your workspace setup like?
Two 27″ monitors, driven from a MacBook, a buckling spring keyboard, and an Apple Magic Mouse.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
Listening when other people talk.
What was the most important thing you learned from creating Bash?
There’s no end to complaining – give a mouse a cookie. Just kidding. Actually, it was how to relinquish code ownership in order to garner additional supporters in the open source community.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
What’s your least favourite work-related task, and how do you deal with it?
Anything financial. I wrote my own accounting system to make my life easier.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
There’s nothing that I am better at than everyone else, except being me. There’s no secret to being me. Follow your interests and work hard at them. Then you will play bass better, program better, cook better, ride motorcycles better, or anything else that you really want to do.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
I try hard to not “work”. Instead, I try to stay focused on why I’m doing what I do, so that I can truly enjoy the sense of satisfaction when I am finished. I absolutely love to play music, and I do that as often as I am able.
What’s your favourite side project?
I’ve been putting a great deal of energy into open source voting – not the technology so much as the organisation of technologists.
What are you currently reading, or what’s something you’d recommend?
Three random sci-fi books. I won’t tell you the authors’ names. I recommend that people read the Orchid source code. There’s good stuff in there, but more importantly, it will awaken them to how they can help!
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _________ answer these same questions.
David Vinyak Wallace (“Gumby”), co-founder of Cygnus, sold to RedHat in the ’90s.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Stop doing that.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
Best way to get into Lifehacker: 1. Write some software that might be useful. 2. Wait 30 years.
We’ve asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? [contact text=”Let us know.”]
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