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What Did the Software Engineering Industry Learn from 40 Years of GNU?

Rakia Ben Sassi 31

Software Engineering

40 Years of GNU: What Did the Software Engineering Industry Learn from It?

11 key lessons that shaped the way we make software today

Rakia Ben Sassi
Level Up Coding
Published in
5 min read18 hours ago


Richard Stallman & the logo of the GNU Operating System
Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), & the logo of the GNU Operating System (edited by author)

It was the early 1980s at the prestigious MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Within the lab, there was a particular nuisance — a printer that had an uncanny knack for jamming at the most inconvenient moments.

Richard Stallman, a young and passionate computer programmer, was frustrated by this recurring annoyance at his workplace. Together with his fellow tech-savvy colleagues, he embarked on a mission.

They ingeniously modified the printer’s software to ensure that it would now send out a helpful notification whenever it dared to jam.

The lab’s productivity soared, and they reveled in their newfound printing prowess.

But fate has a way of testing the mettle of visionaries. When the lab received a shiny new printer from Xerox, their excitement soon waned.

This time, the software was a sealed vault of secrets — proprietary and off-limits. Stallman’s hands, once deft at sculpting software to meet their needs, were now tied.

He reached out to Xerox, hoping to obtain the coveted source code, the key to unlock the printer’s potential. But to his dismay, the company gates remained firmly shut; Xerox refused to share the digital secrets.

This pivotal moment was an awakening for Stallman.

Proprietary software, with its tight grip on source code, was stifling the very essence of freedom in computing.

The collaborative spirit that had long thrived in the computing community was under threat. Stallman was not about to stand idly by. The fire in his heart and his unwavering determination ignited the spark of a revolution.

On that fateful day, September 27, 1983, Richard Stallman made a resounding proclamation to the world — the birth of the GNU project.

GNU’s Not Unix

GNU stands for “GNU’s Not Unix,” which is a playful and slightly recursive acronym.