Recently, GTR was given the opportunity to interview two of the men who
helped make the internet possible -
Kirk McKusick and Eric Allman. Kirk is known for
BSD Unix (its current incarnations run most of the servers on the
internet, and make it possible for you to websurf); and Eric is the author
of sendmail, a daemon (program
which runs in the background) which allows email to go from point A to
point B (without sendmail, you wouldn't have email).
They also happen to be a gay couple, and have been together for many years.
What was your motivation to raise children?
KM> The motivation to help raise children is much the same as that of
anyone else. By being involved in their lives you
instill in them some of your own values which you hope they will carry
on into the future.
EA> Well, not _quite_ the same. We aren't raising kids full time, and
we know that we won't have the same impact on
their lives that their parents will. But often kids need some adult
other than their parents to talk with, and they
can often accept guidance from someone else more easily than they can
EA> I think my motivation stems from this. I went through a difficult
time in my life, and there were a few people, all
of them more experienced than I was, who helped me through that time.
It's now time for me to give back, and maybe,
hopefully, make the world a better place in the process.
Do you foresee a time when gay adoption will be commonplace?
KM> Gays and lesbians have generally been getting more and more of the
rights of heterosexual couples over the last
twenty years. I expect that trend to continue, and adoption will be
one of those rights. Having said that, I do not
expect these rights to be uniformly applied. There will continue to be
places which will make life for
non-traditional couples difficult.
EA> This is a political question, subject to political moods. Those
moods seem to shift back and forward with time and
context. In all fairness, I think we will probably see a backlash at
some point, but then it will get better again,
then worse, then better -- but all the time, the average will move in
the proper direction. So yes, I do think gay
adoption is likely to become more commonplace, but perhaps I'm more
pessimistic than Kirk about when it will happen.
And I agree that things will be different depending on where you are.
EA> This question reminds me of a cartoon we have up on our
refrigerator. One guy is saying to the other, ``you
homosexuals are unstable, promiscuous, flighty, bad role models.'' etc.
The other one says ``actually, my partner
and I want to get married.'' And the first one looks at him and says
``that's disgusting.'' When society gets over
that reaction, gay adoption will become more commonplace.
Congrats on a 21 year relationship! How has your relationship
changed over the years? What kind of rough times have you
had, and how have you gotten through them?
KM> We are older and wiser now :-) When one first gets together, ones
relationship is defined by infatuation. Hopefully
by the time that dies down, you have managed to build up enough other
ties to make it worth your while to continue
living together. Eric and I are both very independent minded, and we
had to learn to find parts of our lives that we
could share while at the same time continue to nurture our own
independent selves. Generally we get through the rough
spots by letting each other know when something bothers up and then
talking / working through a solution. A
relationship is not a static thing. Rather it is something that
requires continued care and feeding, though it does
seem to get easier as time goes on. A certain amount of it is luck -
finding someone with whom you are long-term
compatible. My advice is not to expect to find the right person your
first few times around. Get into a
relationship. Figure out what works for you and what does not. Then
as you learn what you like, try to find someone
that is compatible with those goals.
EA> I'll be more blunt than Kirk: the sex diminishes with time. If you
don't have more to the relationship than sex,
then when that part changes you won't have a relationship left. I've
had relationships where one day I woke up and
realized that although we had spent months together, I had no idea of
who that person in bed next to me was. Or
worse, realizing that although the sex is good, you don't _like_ that
person, as a person. That's not the basis of a
long term relationship.
EA> Every person is different, and you shouldn't let someone else tell
you what you and your relationships should be like
-- not your parents, not society, not Kirk and I. But I agree that one
of the more important things is to be
flexible. People change -- they change jobs, they have a death in the
family, their boss yells at them, whatever.
If you are going to freak when they change, then I doubt that
relationship will last. On the other hand, don't
_depend_ on them changing either -- it's not likely that you can reform
someone who has personality traits that are
fundamentally incompatible with you. But conversely, if you wait for
perfection, you will be waiting for a very
..... long ............ (Yes, Kirk isn't perfect. But what I can't
figure out is why he still puts up with me.)
KM> Well, that makes two of us, I cannot figure out why Eric puts up
What do you predict will happen in the next few years of computer
science? What kinds of advances do you expect?
KM> I expect world domination for open source software :-) More
seriously, I expect that the ever growing processing capabilities and storage capacities will allow us to
write ever more sophisticated and
compact systems. I will have room on my laptop to carry my entire
music collection so that I can listen to it while
jetting around the world even as I answer questions about the future of
computer science (oh wait, I can do that now
:-) I have been pretty lousy at guessing the future so far, and I do
not see myself getting any better at it. So,
I'll just duck this question and join the rest of you in sitting back
and watching what happens.
EA> Yeah, I agree with Kirk: essentially everyone claiming to predict
the future is lying (the honest ones write science
fiction). Some things are easy: computers will be smaller, faster,
cheaper, and draw less power (well, duh). ever
more of ``computing'' will actually be networking, and networking will
become more accessible -- for example, you
shouldn't need a laptop to do simple network access. Whether that will
mean WAP-enabled mobile phones or something
fundamentally different is yet to be seen. Somehow my gut tells me
that it will be something different.
EA> A lot of the next few years will come down to society, including
how the legal system adjusts to technology. For
example, will digital signatures really be incorporated into society?
What kind of privacy rights will we have in
cyberspace? I really am heartened by some of the trends: for example,
I'm seeing greater demands of e-mail than
physical mail, including things like ensuring that private information
such as financial statements are encrypted
(much safer than sealing them in an envelope). On the other hand, we
have Carnivore and
What about gay rights? In the past 20 years, you've got a much
broader perspective on the issue than any of us have.
What do you think we should expect?
KM> Gay rights are like the stock market. They zig-zag up and down.
the general trend over the past twenty years is
that they have been improving. However, in the day-to-day microcosm of
events and laws, one can often get
discouraged by the setbacks and the apparent slow pace of improvements.
When I was a teenager, there was no thought
of coming out. That was something that you would consider when you were
through university and financially
self-sufficent. Today, the typical age that people declare their
sexuality is in their mid teens. This is not to say
that they do not get ridiculed and tormented, but there is usually some
sort of support group available in their
school or community. While there are still large parts of the US and
the world where my openly gay lifestyle would
be taunted or ridiculed, for the most part people keep their attitudes
to themselves rather than express what they
know will be viewed as bigoted views. It is my hope that these trends
will continue, however history tells us that
they may not. Life for gay people improved dramatically in Germany
between the end of World War I (early 1920's) and
Hitler's rise to power (mid 1930's) at which point they took a dramatic
turn for the worse. A protracted worldwide
recession brought on by dwindling supplies and rising prices of oil and
gas could lead to a fundamentalist backlash.
However, I am generally optimistic that things will continue to improve.
EA> I agree with Kirk, and would like to add that I personally believe
that we won't achieve gay rights by hiding in a
ghetto. One of the hardest things I did, and one of the best, was to
just be gay in my day-to-day life. A _lot_ of
people have told me that I was the first person they knew to be gay,
and in general they knew me as a person before
they knew me as a gay man. This forced them to confront their own
prejudices. This isn't to say that we have to
assimilate, not by any means. be unique, by all means! but don't
isolate yourself. Some of my best friends are
When did you come out? If it was before graduation, did it hinder
your abilities or debase your environment at
KM> I came out in my early twenties while a graduate student at the
University of California at Berkeley. My dormitory
roommate was pretty weirded out and a couple of my friends began
spending distinctly less time with me. Other than
that, it was pretty easy going. My mother had died by that time, so I
had only to tell my father. I sat him down and
we talked calmly for about half an hour. As our discussion wound down,
we sat in silence for a few moments at which
point he stood up, walked over to me, gave me a big hug, and said he
did not see any reason that it should come
between us. In comparison to many of my gay friends, I count myself
EA> It was somewhat uglier for me. I was an undergraduate, deeply in
love with one of my classmates, who was (of course)
straight. In fact, I was suicidal. That ended me up at the Student
Health Service in psychiatric counseling with a
guy who assured me that I could be cured. At that point I came to my
senses and made an appointment with a gay "peer
counseling program" that I had been surreptitiously glancing at ads
for. I got a counselor who said ``as long as you
hang out with straight men, you'll be falling in love with straight men
-- go to the Berkeley Gay Mens' Raps.'' I
had about fifteen excuses for why I couldn't do that, and he wasn't
buying any of them. That Friday I found myself
walking back and forth in front of a house in south Berkeley, much to
the amusement of several men standing on the
porch. Finally one of them called out and said something like ``it's
OK, you've found the right place'' and I went
inside. About a week later I was out to my mother, my co-workers, and
anyone else who would listen.
EA> I have to admit that I felt that my advisor cooled toward me when I
came out. I was the first person he had ever
known to be gay, and I think it was hard for him. But he never did
anything to sabotage my education, or anything
like that -- it was a far more subtle, personal thing. Other people
actually liked me better -- I got out of the
self-loathing mode that I now see must have been horrible to deal with.
And I think at least one of my professors
respected it -- she was later my supervisor, and remains a good friend.
How difficult is it to be out in the business world? Do most people
not care about your personal lives and just want the
software, or do problems come up ever?
KM> Usually it is not an issue. My first job was at Hughes Aircraft
doing design on a proximity radar for the space
shuttle. The job required me to have a US security clearance. In the
late 1970's it was possible to be gay and get a
security clearance provided that you were out and could not be
blackmailed. When Ronald Reagan was elected and took
office in 1980 he issued an executive order forbidding gay people to
hold a clearance of the level that I needed.
Hughes was willing to give me a job on a less classified project, but I
could see that upward mobility in that
company was going to be severely limited, so instead changed gears and
decided to pursue an academic career. In
retrospect, I feel lucky to have been pushed in that direction. I have
had no discrimination that I am aware of
since that time.
EA> To a certain extent, Kirk and I can afford to be arrogant. Our
reputations are already established (in fact, we use
our positions to try to create a safe space for other people). And
after all, it's not like Sendmail is likely to
EA> But things aren't perfect, by any means. We've had people
interview at Sendmail who declined a job because they said
they wouldn't feel comfortable working at a company where one of the
founders was as out as I am (and hey, I thought
I was subtle). It's rare of course, but it happens.
EA> Basically, my sexuality is not part of my work life. I'm out; I
talk about Kirk openly, but I don't think it's
appropriate to be too (how shall I say?) explicit about your sexuality
in a business setting, whether you are
straight or gay. I actually talked to a gay employee and suggested
that he take a poster of a naked man that he had
up in his office home. My metric was simple: if a straight man had a
picture of a naked woman up in his office, I
would think that was inappropriate for an office setting. The same guy
still has his rainbow flag on his wall, his
pink triangle on his bulletin board, and his HRC logo on his door, and
that's fine -- in fact, I think it's great.
What were your original plans for Sendmail and were you surprised
when it took off as it did? When did you realize you had
hit on something big?
EA> Originally, as in before the Internet craze, or as in originally,
when I started the company? I didn't have a clue
that the Internet would be as big as it is, even though I loved e-mail
myself and even then knew that I wouldn't want
to live without it. But by the time the company started, I was pretty
EA> Sendmail was originally implemented as a hack to solve a local
problem at Berkeley (that was when it was called
delivermail). I didn't originally plan to release it outside of
Berkeley, but other people shared the problem, so of
course I shared the code. The conversion from delivermail to sendmail
came about because of the realization that the
network world was becoming much larger; after all, we were moving from
8-bit to 32-bit host addresses, and some
people predicted that someday there might be as many as a million hosts
on the network. I certainly didn't expect
the sort of explosion we have today (remember: sendmail was designed
before the Internet, before TCP/IP, before the
PC, before workstations -- well, OK, Xerox PARC had the Alto).
EA> I think the ultimate realization that sendmail was really big was
when it became increasingly difficult for me to
support it with just the small team of volunteers at sendmail.org.
That's when doing the company came together.
What are your opinions of Darwin and MacOS X, which are based on your
KM> I am of the opinion that the more people that use BSD the better.
I am thrilled to have BSD become the basis for
Apple's operating system.
EA> I go even further than Kirk: _finally_ there is an end-user,
commodity operating system out there that is based on
real technology. And the more Open Source, the better.
Can you think of one piece of software which you admire so much that
you wish you had written it yourself? Conversely can
you think of one thing that is so hideous (proprietary operating systems
aside) that it should never have been allowed to
KM> I am generally impressed with large software projects that have
managed to build big and reliable systems. Ones that
come to mind are those of the Apache project and the X11 windows system. These are not
things that I would have wished to write myself
but I am very glad that someone took the time to write and maintain
them. I tend to get very frustrated with
software for which I cannot get the source code, and hence for which I
have to way to fix bugs or what I view as
misfeatures. My current hot button is the Purify
tool suite. I would
very much like to have their tools available on BSD, but it seems
unlikely that they will make them available in the
EA> The programs I wish I had written myself are the ones that I
_don't_ admire, as in ``I could have done better,'' but
for various reasons I have to use the damn things anyway. I'm more
than happy that other people wrote lots of cool
EA> To this day, the most impressive thing I've seen in terms of sheer
expressive power is the ability to combine
programs trivially -- think pipes and the general Unix model that
``everything is a file.''
Has being gay been hindered acceptance of your software at any time,
and how did you deal with it?
KM> Generally it has been a non-issue. I get an occasional piece of
hate mail, usually from someone quoting bible
scripture. It actually seems to be triggered more by my copyright on
the BSD Daemon than
on my being gay. I choose not to engage these
folks as they seem uninterested in the facts having made up their minds
EA> Well, there was the Jesux system,
which turned out
to be a hoax, although the guy who perpetrated it said that someone
ought to do it. They said they were going to use
qmail instead of sendmail because sendmail was written by a ``prominent
How did you get started in the technical business?
KM> I enjoyed playing with electronics when I was growing up, and got
hooked on computer programming beginning with my
first programming class as an undergraduate.
EA> Ditto. I was always playing with switches and wires and lights
when I was a kid, and I got a chance to program a
real computer (an IBM 1401 -- think
substantially less powerful than a Palm Pilot, but
filling a room) when I was 13 and was completely hooked. I did both
for many years (I worked on building my own
computer for several years, but never did get it working) and finally
had to choose one or the other when I got into
college. I liked the way that software was more malleable than hardware.
EA> I've always thought it was interesting that Kirk and I both started
in hardware and moved to software. I think
that's why we both like systems software.
How do you feel about the ongoing GPL vs BSD
license argument; do you prefer one over the other, or do
you think the whole thing is pointless bickering?
KM> I am a very strong advocate of the BSD license. I want to see my
software used as widely as possible, and the BSD
license allows it to be used in places where the GPL
simply does not work (typically embedded systems
that need to hack the kernel). I encourage companies to give their code
back to the BSD developers by convincing that
doing so is not only good public relations, but also makes future
releases much easier to integrate. Most companies
do make most of their work available to the BSD developers, so the end
result is similar to what GPL'ed code gets
anyway without scaring the companies and their lawyers to death.
EA> I'm inclined to agree with Kirk, although the success of Linux
shows that at least some companies have gotten used to
the idea of the GPL. I'm fascinated by what this whole Open Source
revolution means for intellectual property -- if
you can use something, modify it, and redistribute it, all without
owning it, what does ``ownership'' mean? I'm
writing this on my way back from Linux Expo in Paris, where one of the
big topics has been patents. Does patent law
make sense any more, at least in its current form? I don't have an
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