4 min read

Dr. Joe Armstrong, one of the creators of Erlang passed away over the weekend at the age of 68. Dr. Armstrong’s wife specified that he died from an infection of the lungs which occurred due to a quite recent diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis. His lungs were donated to lung research.

Francesco Cesarini, founder of Erlang solutions tweeted about Joe’s demise.

Robert Virding, co-creator of Erlang also payed his regards.


The developer community has also mourned the loss of Joe Armstrong with a large number of developers taking to various social media platforms to offer their condolences to Dr. Armstrong’s family and paying their respects for him.

Dr. Armstrong’s work with concurrency programming

Dr. Armstrong was best known for helping lay foundations in the ’70s and ’80s to the most widely spread concurrency models as we know them today. In concurrent programming, multiple events, code snippets or programs are perceived to be executing at the same time. Unlike imperative languages, which uses routines or object-oriented languages, which use objects. Concurrency oriented languages use processes, actors, and agents as the main building blocks. Dr. Armstrong helped propel concurrency programming at a time when there was no IoT, web, massive multi-user online games, video streaming, and automated trading or online transactions.

The Erlang programming language

Erlang was co-created by Joe Armstrong alongside Robert Virding and Mike Williams in the 1980s at the Ericsson Computer Science Labs. While working there, Dr. Armstrong and his colleagues were looking for an approach to developing fault-tolerant and scalable systems. This resulted in the Erlang-style concurrency. He later received a Ph. D. in computer science from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden in 2003. He is also the author of a number of key books on the topic of Erlang including Concurrent Programming in Erlang, Programming Erlang: Software for a Concurrent World, and Coders At Work.

Erlang was originally built for use only at Ericsson, as a proprietary language, to improve telephony applications. It was designed to be a fault-tolerant, distributed, real-time system that offered pattern matching and functional programming in one handy package. It was then open-sourced to the public in 1998. Since then, it has been responsible for business, big and small, to create reliable systems.

Since then, Erlang has been one of the most popular open source languages with compelling features like concurrent processes, memory management, scheduling, distribution, networking, etc. WhatsApp, the most popular messaging platform’s server is almost completely implemented in Erlang. In 2018, Erlang celebrated 20 years of its open sourcing tracing its journey from Ericcson to Whatsapp.

Erlang also inspired Elixir, a general-purpose programming language that runs on the Erlang virtual machine. Elixir is built on top of Erlang and shares the same abstractions for building distributed, fault-tolerant applications. Using Erlang modules in Elixir has helped in the creation of Nerves, which helps in building embedded software, and the web framework Phoenix.

Remembering Dr. Joe Armstrong

Many developers have shared their sentiments on Dr. Armstrong’s demise, with most of them describing him as a kind and compassionate developer who was more interested in teaching than his ego.

Thomas Gebert, a software developer shared an email thread where he asked Joe Armstrong about concurrency. He states, “Dr. Armstrong’s enthusiasm about Erlang, distributed programming, and pretty much everything else about computers was really a good springboard for self-education.” Even though Thomas asked some serious noobie questions about concurrency, Dr. Armstrong responded back with an incredibly long, well-written email explaining a lot of the minutia of how Erlang avoids a lot of pitfalls and generic concurrency theory. Thomas adds, “He was really good about explaining things in a way simple-enough for me to understand, without coming off as patronizing or rude.”

A lot of people also took to Twitter to share their experiences working with Dr. Armstrong.

He and I discussed distributed storage. Well detailed response from him that sent me reading for days. I aspire to be like him.” reads a comment on Hacker News. Such was his popularity.

Here are some of his memorable quotes on a varied set of topics of interest to him.

“All significant energy gains in the last 50 odd years are the result of new hardware NOT software.”

Prediction: One day computers might become useful

“One on the disadvantages of having a PhD in computer science is that I get asked really difficult questions.

Like – “In gmail on my iPhone I press archive – can I get my mail back?”

and “Why have they changed the interface?”

Why no easy questions like what’s a monad?”

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