Larry Wall
Photo By Nick Onken
Missionary to the Geeks
Perl inventor finds great genius means great responsibility
Larry Wall, Seattle Pacific University graduate of 1976, remembers when a young Bill Gates worked next to him in the one-room SPU Computer Science Lab. He never dreamed that Gates — then a visiting programmer — would go build Microsoft. Or that Wall himself would become a computer programming legend.

Nor did he anticipate that writing code would enable him to share his Christian faith with “geek culture” everywhere. Wall visited SPU in May to tell his life story to science students at the 2008 Erickson Undergraduate Research Conference. It was their chance to hear from the man who invented the fundamental Perl programming language. (The name Wall chose is a reference to the “pearl of great price” mentioned in Matthew 13:46.)

If you’ve shopped on or bought tickets online from Ticketmaster, you’ve used Perl. While crafting a computer bug-reporting system in 1987, Wall composed some scripting language and posted it on the Internet, hoping others would find it helpful. They did. And as others extended Wall’s code, it evolved into a powerful and influential programming language that supports much of the online activity we use today. Currently, Wall works “right across the street from Google” in California’s Silicon Valley, developing the next version of Perl.

But he remembers his adventures three decades ago, as he pursued a double major in chemistry and music at SPU. After graduating, he and his wife, Gloria — also an alum — rigorously prepared to become missionaries overseas, but Wall suddenly developed food allergies. “God whacked me upside the head and said, ‘No, you’re not going to do that,’” he explains.

Perl’s success turned Wall into a missionary of another sort. “Geek culture” is a population that is notoriously difficult to evangelize, says Wall. Yet his achievements earned the respect of techies, and many have listened attentively to his life story. Wall tripped over this vision for evangelism while at SPU, reading the writings of C.S. Lewis. “Lewis was not inclined to be a Christian until he noticed that all the top people in the fields he cared about were Christians,” he explains.

“Therefore, any Christians really ought to strive to be the best in their field. I’ve tried to be the best computer language designer in my own way.”
By Jeffrey Overstreet
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