Philip Greenspun

Philip Greenspun is a semi-retired American computer scientist, educator, and early Internet entrepreneur who was a pioneer in developing online communities. His blog, hosted by Harvard Law School, contains his opinions on diverse subjects, from politics, to technology, to even divorce and discrimination law.[1]

Philip Greenspun
Philip and Alex, 1997, by Elsa Dorfman
Born (1963-09-28) September 28, 1963
Bethesda, Maryland, United States
ResidenceCambridge, Massachusetts
Known forpioneering database-backed Internet applications
and online learning communities
Scientific career
FieldsComputer science
Doctoral advisorPatrick Winston


Greenspun was born on September 28, 1963, grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and received an S.B. in Mathematics from MIT in 1982. After working for Hewlett Packard Research Labs in Palo Alto and Symbolics, he became a founder of ICAD, Inc. Greenspun returned to MIT to study electrical engineering and computer science, eventually receiving a Ph.D.

Among software engineers, Greenspun is known for his Tenth Rule of Programming: "Any sufficiently complicated C or Fortran program contains an ad hoc, informally-specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of half of Common Lisp."

In 1993, Greenspun founded, an online community for people helping each other to improve their photographic skills. He seeded the community with "Travels with Samantha",[2] a photo-illustrated account of a trip from Boston to Alaska and back. became a business in 2000 with the help of some of his cofounders Rajeev Surati and Waikit Lau. Having grown to 600,000 registered users, was acquired by NameMedia in 2007 for $6 million, according to documents filed in connection with a planned public offering of NameMedia shares.[3]

Greenspun released the software behind as a free open-source toolkit called the ArsDigita Community System, built on top of the Oracle relational database management system. He wrote several textbooks on developing Internet applications, including Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing,[4] SQL for Web Nerds,[5] and Software Engineering for Internet Applications,[6] the textbook for an MIT course. Greenspun started a company to sell support and service contracts for the toolkit, which remained free, and grew ArsDigita to about $20 million in revenue before taking a venture capital investment.[7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16]

Greenspun was an early developer of database-backed Web sites,[17] which became the dominant approach to engineering sites with user contributions, e.g., Greenspun was a developer of one of the first Web-based electronic medical record systems.[18] Greenspun's Oracle-based community site LUSENET was an important early host of free forums. In 1995, Greenspun was hired to lead development of Hearst Corporation's Internet services, which included some early e-commerce sites.

Greenspun was employed as a commercial pilot for Delta Air Lines subsidiary Comair from 2008 until it ceased operation in 2012.[19] According to the FAA Airmen registry,[20] Greenspun holds an Airline Transport Pilot License and Flight Instructor certificates for both airplanes and helicopters, as well as type ratings for two turbojet-powered airplanes. Greenspun is listed as an instructor at the East Coast Aero Club[21] and was interviewed by NPR regarding the success of a Groupon helicopter lesson offer.[22]

Greenspun and his co-founders started a non-profit foundation that ran the ArsDigita Prize, an award for young web developers, and the ArsDigita University, a tuition-free one-year program teaching the core computer science curriculum, one course at a time. Winners of the Prize include a 12 year old Aaron Swartz.[23]

Greenspun has taught electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.[24] One of Greenspun's most famous students is Randal Pinkett, who built an online community for low-income housing residents in Greenspun's 6.171 Software Engineering for Internet Applications course. Pinkett went on to win NBC TV show The Apprentice. In 2003, Greenspun helped teach a newly designed circuits and electronics course at MIT.[25]

In 2007, Greenspun donated $20,000 to Wikimedia Foundation to start a project fund for the payment of illustrators to supply illustrations for use on Wikimedia Foundation projects.[26][27]

Greenspun is a volunteer for Angel Flight and, on December 6, 2010, assisted in the first nationally arranged kidney paired-donation in which kidneys were flown from Lebanon, New Hampshire to St. Louis and vice versa.[28]

In January 2011 and again in January 2012, Greenspun taught an intensive RDBMS/SQL programming course at MIT using Google Docs to coordinate classroom instruction.[29]

In December 2013, Greenspun donated $10,000 to Kids on Computers (KOC), a 501(c)(3) non-profit which sets up computer labs in areas where kids do not have access to technology. In recognition of Greenspun's donation, the KOC lab at Escuela Manuel Gonzalez Gatica was named the Gittes Family Lab in honor of his grandfather.[30] Avni Khatri, President of  Kids on Computers in 2012 credits his time at Arsdigita for him learning the value of FOSS and how it can help bridge and connect virtual and real-world communities.[31]


  2. Philip Greenspun. "Travels with Samantha".
  3. Weisenthal, Joseph (2007-11-02). "Domain name marketplace NameMedia files for $172 million IPO". Retrieved 2015-09-04.
  4. Philip Greenspun (1999-04-29). Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing. Morgan Kaufmann.
  5. Philip Greenspun (January 2000). SQL for Web Nerds. Morgan Kaufmann.
  6. Philip Greenspun (2006-02-24). Software Engineering for Internet Applications. MIT Press.
  7. Philip Greenspun. "ArsDigita: From Start-Up to Bust-Up".
  8. Livingston, Jessica (2008-11-01). Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days. Apress. ISBN 9781430210771.
  9. Esser, Teresa (2002-03-14). The Venture Caf?: Secrets, Strategies, and Stories from America's High-Tech Entrepreneurs. Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 9780759527126.
  10. Hartl, Michael; Prochazka, Aurelius (2007-07-20). RailsSpace: Building a Social Networking Website with Ruby on Rails. Addison-Wesley Professional. ISBN 9780132701860.
  11. D, Lytras, Miltiadis (2006-12-31). Open Source for Knowledge and Learning Management: Strategies Beyond Tools: Strategies Beyond Tools. Idea Group Inc (IGI). ISBN 9781599041193.
  12. Inc, IDG Network World (1999-06-28). Network World. IDG Network World Inc.
  13. Spolsky, Joel (2009-07-01). "Joel Spolsky: The Day My Industry Died". Inc. Retrieved 2019-09-12.
  14. "Four companies that failed spectacularly, and the lessons of their premature demise". Retrieved 2019-09-12.
  15. Lee Yohn, Denise (2019-05-01). "Why Startups Fail". Forbes. Retrieved 2019-09-12.
  16. ChubbyBrain, Jamie Kingsbery. "33 Startups That Died Reveal Why They Failed". Business Insider. Retrieved 2019-09-12.
  17. Greenspun, Philip (1997). Database backed Web sites: the thinking person's guide to Web publishing. Ziff-Davis Press.
  18. Kohane, I.S.; Greenspun, P.; Fackler, J.; Cimino, C.; Szolovits, P. (1996). "Building national electronic medical record systems via the World Wide Web". Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. 3: 191–207. doi:10.1136/jamia.1996.96310633. PMC 116301. PMID 8723610.
  19. Greenspun, Philip (2012-09-12). "My own union job comes to an end". Retrieved 2013-08-04.
  20. "Search airmen certificate information". Federal Aviation Administration. Retrieved 2015-09-04.
  21. "Our instructors". East Coast Aero Club. 2015. Retrieved 2015-09-04.
  22. Keith, Tamara (2010-08-24). "Half-off cupcakes and more". NPR. Retrieved 2015-09-04.
  23. "Prosecution's Case Against Swartz Draws Scrutiny". Retrieved 2019-09-12.
  24. Abelson, Hal and Philip Greenspun, Teaching Software Engineering - lessons from MIT,
  25. Cameron, Jay (2003-05-13). "Circuits and Electronics Taking a New Approach". The Tech. Retrieved 2011-02-06.
  26. Cohen, Noam (2007-12-03). "At Wikipedia, Illustrators May Be Paid". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-28.
  27. See Philip Greenspun illustration project
  28. Greenspun, Philip (2010-12-13). "Kidneys and gyros in Pittsburgh". Retrieved 2015-09-04.
  29. "GoogleDocsBlog Post". Retrieved 2011-02-27. Today (Greenspun) explains how he used Google Docs to develop and distribute curricular materials and to support in-classroom discussion of student solutions.
  30. "Gittes Family Lab at Escuela Manuel Gonzalez Gatica « Kids On Computers".
  31. Watkins, Don (2016-12-27). "Kids on Computers establishes computer labs in five countries". Retrieved 2019-09-12.

ArsDigita histories

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