Review of “Coders at Work” by Peter Seibel

As young as programming is, it seems that most of the practitioners in the field have little sense of the history of it.  I’m not entirely sure why this is.  Perhaps it is caused by the twin realities of rapidly evolving technologies and the relative youth of the folks that write code.  No matter the reasons, it seems like nobody thinks very much about what happened in languages like Assembly, Lisp, Fortran and Smalltalk on platforms like early IBM mainframes, Altos and PDP-11s back in the dark ages before the dawn of the Internet age.  It seems to me that it pays to understand where your field has come from.   If you feel as I do about this, you should take the time to read “Coders at Work”, a collection of interviews  with some of the all-time greatest programmers that most of us have never heard of.

Well, hopefully you’ve heard of some of them.  Guys like Ken Thompson (co-creator of UNIX) and Donald Knuth (author of the masterwork “The Art of Computer Programming”) have set down bodies of work that demand attention.  Some of them, like Brendan Eich (CTO at the Mozilla Foundation) and Joshua Bloch (Chief Java Architect at Google), might be well-known because of their current positions more than their past work.  Others, like Fran Allen (2002 Turing Award winner), are probably unknown to 99% of the programmers on the planet.  No matter their fame, every single one of them has fascinating things to say about where we’ve been and where we’re going as a profession.

I think what struck me the most as I read through the first-hand accounts was just how little computer these guys had to work with back in the early days.  I thought I had it rough at the start of my career writing systems using HP3000 Basic and its two-character limit on variable names until I read about programming analog computers in the 50s and the early digital computers that supported as little as 200 words of memory.   It makes you wonder what people will think of our mildly multi-core servers thirty years from now.  It is also amazing how programming has remained just about as hard as it was back then.  Sure, we have better tools now, but our users expect much more too.

Although this book does not offer the sweeping, dispassionate view-point of a true history, it provides the invaluable personal perspective of the people who made history happen.  Reading this book is about the closest many of us will ever get to joggling punch cards and toggling switches to enter code.  It’s definitely worthwhile reading for every professional coder.

Check out “Coders at Work” at Amazon.

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