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Feature: Unix

Theo de Raadt gives it all to OpenBSD

By JT Smith on January 30, 2001 (8:00:00 AM)

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- By Julie Bresnick -
Open Source people
Admittedly, I was apprehensive about interviewing Theo de Raadt. Right after Marius Aamodt Eriksen shared with me his respect for de Raadt's programming prowess I looked de Raadt ("wrought") up on the Web and contacted him. As OpenBSD project leader, de Raadt was not hard to track down, and I was anxious to write about programmers involved with non-Linux projects.

A bit more research revealed posts by individuals who suggested that he was a "difficult." I figured I'd feel him out on email and sent him a few lists of questions to which he replied with speed and efficiency. He signed off on the correspondences with questions like "what's next?" and "is there more?" Questions that serve to bait one who is traditionally accused of inexhaustible inquisitiveness (of course there's more!). I knew we'd have to switch to the telephone.

He said it would be a late night so I shouldn't call before 1 p.m. I waited till 1:30 his time (which is Mountain Standard Time because he lives in Calgary) because I wanted to make sure I got him well rested. The call went unanswered, and I imagined his rumored disposition driving him to punish me for waking him by not responding to my email reminder. Turns out, his stereo was simply too loud to hear the phone ring. Comforting, especially because I have always felt a certain affinity for people who appreciate music at deafening decibels.

Considering the habit among hackers of working into the wee hours without even noticing, I figured his premeditation was due to some deadline or maybe, given that his New Year's resolution had something to do with beer, a celebration of some sort. It turned out he just works that way, especially when he wants to hang out with fellow coders in far away places.

He definitely likes to hang out with his project teammates on IRC. He is proud of his team because they work together, because they trust him and he likes them. He said, "you might even say the OpenBSD team is like a family," and then gave a great laugh, mocking himself for being cliched. Seems de Raadt, who was asked in December of 1994, by the then remaining core members to resign from his official affiliation with NetBSD, went through some sort of transformation with OpenBSD which is probably one of the reasons he feels so close to it. He says he was never a people person at all. But now he is. He is motivated to a large degree by the desire to take care of his team. Last year, he gave as many as nine talks on OpenBSD in front of large assembled audiences.

His ideal day, too, consists of several social visits. "Hack for an hour, then bike to a Vietnamese restaurant and hang with a friend for an hour or so, return and hack for an hour. Then bike for a coffee with another friend for an hour. Return and hack for an hour. Then bike somewhere else for a beer for two hours with a friend. Then return and hack. I like variety."

This current state wouldn't be quite so notable were it not contrasted with the terms under which he was booted from the NetBSD project, an experience that might have left him increasingly resentful. In this post, a core member praises de Raadt for the wealth of code he contributed and then suggests that his "rude and abusive" behavior toward other programmers was inappropriate and "damaging to the project." de Raadt remembers it as a "political explosion" and says that over the subsequent seven months he tried to make amends, that it was a difficult time for him, having been expelled from his community. So he started a new one, in October of '95, with developers who agreed with him on certain nuances of developing BSD code. In our interview, he bore no ill will towards those he worked with at NetBSD (though he agrees there might be friction between those at the upper levels of each of the BSD projects) and said that he is satisfied and grateful that he is still able to do what he is able to do. There is nothing else like working on BSD, he says, and he wouldn't really want to do anything else.

Hacking is all he wants to do: hack, mountain bike, and climb mountains, in that order. Characteristically efficient de Raadt looks at the world first in terms of hotspots for programming secure code and second as places with good mountains. He talks about invitations he's received to speak at conferences, matching them with areas near mountains to climb and suggests dates ideal for doing so. But it's not like the talks function simply as tickets to the climb, it is clear that he cares most about the project. So much so in fact that, despite the money-making potential of his skills, he opts to work full time on OpenBSD, subsisting solely on his share of donations, which he divides among developers, and from the sale of OpenBSD T-shirts, posters, and CDs, that, combined with the donations, keep him and the project going. One of his goals is to find a way for the rest of the developers to work on it full time as well, by cultivating positions inside corporations, applying for grants and other means that become increasingly accessible as the project grows and its product becomes more popular. To this end he is not only dedicated but confident because he knows his colleagues are equally enamored and that their dedication is reflected in the quality of the code. "Even the United States Department of Justice Department has OpenBSD in use."

But de Raadt has never lived in the United States and never would because, he says, U.S. cryptography regulations would prevent them from developing the code their way. He's been all over the world though. Of Dutch decent, he lived with his family in eight different areas of South Africa by the time he was 9, when he and his family relocated to Canada. As de Raadt remembers it, his father, who is a civil engineer, moved so much to work on different projects and when the political situation in South Africa grew too precarious, development of the infrastructure died down. They got the heck out, moved to Calgary, Alberta, then on to Whitehorse, Yukon, and then Theo got off the de Raadt bus and moved back to Calgary to attend university there. Sounds like he's there to stay which I question, considering he claims to hate winter but he says it is the single best place to be in the summertime -- that's when he mountain bikes almost every day.

He started at the University of Calgary as an electrical engineering major. That lasted until he found the VAX 11/78 in the computer science department. "I had discovered 4.2BSD and life was never the same again. Finally I had discovered a system that could run code, and when it crashed, the machine didn't go down. This was the single most important moment." He was soon too busy finding bugs in the kernel and programming socket code of 4.2 BSD to go to classes in his major. He graduated in 1993 with a computer science degree. After graduation he stayed in Calgary and went to work for Willow Glen Singapore, porting OpenBSD to a Motorola VME platform. That was his last job before dedicating himself to OpenBSD entirely.

When I spoke with him he started off sort of staccato, short quick answers, as if he was a contestant at a game show and I was the host. But as it progressed he became garrulous like a stone that starts slowly at the very top of the hill but the gains momentum and plateaus at rapid speed. Talkative and earnest, there were few pauses, no silences spent searching for diplomacy. He makes it clear that he does not do anything half-assed, which means he knows himself well. And the intensity with which he approaches projects is probably what led to the disruption at NetBSD. After all, like one guy gossiping on the Web about de Raadt and his history stated, "excess and eccentricity go hand in hand with genius."

About Theo de Raadt

First big hack: "Probably a Vic-20 game I wrote. I think I was 15. There were these falling things in it, and you had to shoot them, of course. Anyways, I ran out of memory on the 3.5KB machine. So, what was I to do? I managed to store some additional chunks of data in the high bit of the color RAM ..."

First programming language: Assembly.

Where he would you like to be in 10 years: Doing the same things.

What do you think is the future of technology: "I actually don't think about that much. Instead, I think there are ways to be rather more grounded, and just try to improve our own little corner. See, I think that many people in the 'industry' are really into 'new, great, wonderful' sorts of things, but around here we're very much just cleaning things up so that it works 'better,' before it does 'more.' "

Where to go to learn about history of OpenBSD: "I think that Pete Wayner's book Free for all discusses it better than anything else. I wish more people read it."

New Year's resolution: "Hmmmm...To go to parties that don't run out of beer."

Favorite beer: McNalley's Traditional & GrassHopper, and also Guiness at times.

Favorite mountain bike ride: "Moosepackers loop. It's kind of flat and winding, with a hell of a hill at the end. Kind of swampy at places. After about 25 minutes you hit the real Moose Mountain gravel road where you climb for about 30 minutes until you just can't take anymore, but then you hit the hiking parking lot and head down for about two kilometers. Insanity lies ahead. Tight switchpacking turns during a flying descent leads to flatter and swampier country below. At the end of the ride, two things are clear: You are soaked, and you are covered with mud head to toe."

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