Elein Mustain

Tags:   postgresql    postgres    generalbits    pgwomen    ingres    informix    illustra    ucberkeley    millscollege   
Category:   Interviews   
Interviewed by: Andreas Scherbaum

PostgreSQL is the World’s most advanced Open Source Relational Database. The interview series “PostgreSQL Person of the Week” presents the people who make the project what it is today. Read all interviews here.

Please tell us about yourself, and where you are from.

I was born in El Paso, Texas, USA. My family is mostly from California and Texas. I’ve lived most of my life in the San Francisco East Bay Area primarily in Oakland, California. A notable exception was three years in Maracaibo, Venezuela when I was starting elementary school. This was followed by studying Spanish from then into college. Another interesting locale was Albany, California in 1968/9 while my father went back to school at UC Berkeley.

My father worked on the original credit card system for Chevron. My sister R, a teacher, has a degree in MIS. My sister C and mother worked with various computer programs. My niece is a graduate student in bio-tech. I have a AB degree in Computer Science from UC Berkeley after transferring from Mills College.

There are three things to know about me if you genuinely know me. The first is how to spell and say Elein. The other two require that you get to know me. Elein: eelEEN or ilín in Spanish or Audio.

Elein Mustain

Elein Mustain

How do you spend your free time? What are your hobbies?

I am now retired and sheltering in place. My hobbies are extensive reading of news, mysteries and other literature, dance (when my back allows) and writing. I have a few regular zoom meetings to see my friends and family. The Simpsons Tapped Out is my guilty pleasure.

Any Social Media channels of yours we should be aware of?

Last book you read? Or a book you want to recommend to readers?

Last read: John Woman by Walter Mosley. I enjoyed it because of its discussions on deconstruction of history. Recommend: Read everything.

What’s still on your bucket list?

An RV trip following the Underground Railroad from Alabama to Ontario.

What is the best advice you ever got?

  • Everything taught in my improv classes about daring to be, bravery and supporting others.
  • “When we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”
  • “Shut up and Dance.”

When did you start using PostgreSQL, and why?

I left Ingres in 1992 to join Miró/Montage/Illustra, the first commercialized version of Postgres, at the invitation from Paula Hawthorn from the Systers mailing list. Illustra’s stunningly brilliant folks (I was a small fish) added SQL, promoted DataBlades (complex extensions like document types, r-tree geometry, TimeSeries for Wall street) and much more.

Eventually, Illustra was purchased by Informix for its engineers. We proceeded to implement the object-relational model in one year onto the Informix IUS system. I was the technical manager of the C API in which, at the time, all stored procedures were written. I was also the last manager of the Illustra code base. I worked with Michael Stonebraker to get that released to the PGDG, but it didn’t take off.

In a parallel universe, Andrew Yu and Jolly Chen implemented SQL on Postgres and released Postgres95. This, of course, was released to the Postgres Global Development Group and became PostgreSQL.

I have worked as a programmer for about 35+ years since my AB in Computer Science from UC Berkeley. Yes, a AB not a BS—I am a literate, intuitive engineer.

How do you contribute to PostgreSQL?

I am living history and an evangelist, especially for original object relational design. My past contributions include my column, GeneralBits. In my employment I wrote tools like my reporting engine, pg_differ, a database of databases and performed database application development.

Any contributions to PostgreSQL which do not involve writing code?

For about six years I wrote GeneralBits, a pre-blog column based on pgsql-general. I took pgsql-general discussions, clarified them and wrote examples in order to promote information to postgres users. The column was well received far beyond my expectations.

I was the original instigator of pgwomen, a mailing list which was brutally criticized by men in postgres. It was abandoned due to the harsh response and is now semi-reconstructed by postgres-women.

What is your favorite PostgreSQL extension?

I would have to say the Illustra TimeSeries Datablade because I never completely understood it. Taking such a complex issue as Wall Street time data and implementing it using object-relational methodologies in postgres was amazing. I was also pretty fond of geometric types and functions.

What is the most annoying PostgreSQL thing you can think of? And any chance to fix it?

Over layered access to server features in the name of “cloud computing”. Lack of obvious tools for configuration of server, replication, backup, upgrade, front end development, etc.

Adding to that, what feature/mechanism would you like to see in PostgreSQL? And why?

Jagged rows, more emphasis on extensibility using object relational methods, functional columns.

Could you describe your PostgreSQL development toolbox?

psql, vi/vim and various scripting languages for coding and testing SQL, applications and stored procedures. C, dbg when looking at C code. I religiously use the postgres code to answer questions.

Which skills are a must have for a PostgreSQL developer/user?

A user and a developer are different animals like architects and dbas. Some tasks are rote and some take a lot of experience and vision. A developer needs user skills plus programming skills. Both require SQL and an understanding of relational databases. Network configuration, operating systems and scripting tools are required for both. Knowledge of tools, languages, algorithms, models and costs are needed by developers.

Which PostgreSQL conferences do you visit? Do you submit talks?

Talks and Tutorials:

  • IV Foro Mundial de Conocimiento Libre, Maturin, Venezuela, Oct 2006 Talk: Introduction to PostgreSQL
  • O’Reilly Open Source Conference, Portland, OR 2004, 2005, 2006 Tutorial: Introduction to PostgreSQL
  • O’Reilly Open Source Conference, Portland, OR 2006 TimeTravel in PostgreSQL
  • Roseville Linux User Group, Jun 2004
  • Netherlands Unix User Group (NLUUG) Open Source in Business, May 2004 Talk: PostgreSQL in Business
  • and a few more…

Program Committees: I have been a member of several program committees including Grace Hopper Women in Computing for two years, OSCON for four years, PgSVConf 2015, and PgDaySF 2020.

Postgres User groups: Along with Josh Berkus, I helped found San Francisco Postgres Users Group.

Do you think Postgres has a high entry barrier?

Software layering is dumbing down comprehension of technology to users’ detriment. tl;dr

What is your advice for people who want to start PostgreSQL developing - as in, contributing to the project. Where and how should they start?

Ask and answer questions. Read the code. Come to understand the intent of the design. Understand extensions. Analyze and fix bugs in queries, working up to bugs in the server. Be open minded.

Do you think PostgreSQL will be here for many years in the future?

So far so good. As long as PostgreSQL remains open source with wide community support it will last and continue to support many developers and users.

Are you reading the -hackers mailinglist? Any other list?

In my retirement, I lurk on many pgsql mailing lists, including -advocacy, -hackers, -general, -SQL, etc. I can be seen on IRC and social media postgres groups.

Anything else you like to add?

Re Women in Technology:

It takes passion, strength and bravery to be a woman working in Tech. Be respectful of people who live in the daily barrage of negativism and still manage to love the work. Be respectful and kind to people who sadly left because they could not take it anymore.


My thanks to David Gould for mentoring me, Paula Hawthorn for hiring me, Tom L Johnson for believing in me, Anita Borg for Systers, thelist at Ingres for providing community and the long list of everyone who supported and befriended me.

I am beholden to everyone who asked me a question and/or answered my questions: Tom Lane, RhodiumToad, Michael Ubell, Wei Hong, Michael Stonebraker, Andrew Yu, David Fetter, Álvaro Herrera, George and every reader of my blogs and GeneralBits.