Programmers at Work

Those old enough might remember the 1986 book Programmers at Work. It was a set of in depth interviews with 19 programmer pioneers at the time. The pioneers included people like Dan Bricklin (VisiCalc), Ray Ozzie (Lotus Symphony, Lotus Notes), John Warnock (PostScript, Adobe), Jeff Raskin (Macintosh), Andy Hertzfeld (MacOS), Bill Gates (MS Basic), Gary Kildall (CP/M) and our very own Charles Simonyi.

I remember my fascination with this book at the time. When re-reading the interviews today, I get mixed feelings:

On the one hand side, although the book is over 20 years old, the insights and issues discussed are still highly relevant to what we face today in the software industry. The terminology and examples might be a bit dated, and the views expressed might at the time have been radical whereas they today are main stream. But overall, the interviews are still relevant today and we can learn a lot from them. So in this regard it is still a fascinating read.

On the other hand, when you read the book you see that our profession has not evolved much over the last quarter of a century. We still face the same challenges of handling complexity, good design is still critical and still very hard, we still debate whether software is engineering, art, science or a craft, we still use programming languages that mirror the execution model of our computers, we still use only textual programming languages that has to be parsed from text like the punch cards legacy forced us to do, we still only have very primitive tools, quality is still a big problem, finding and nurturing programming talent is still a challenge, programmer training and education is still broken, and so on. So in this regard it is a depressing read.

Susan Lammers, the author of the original book, just started a blog about the book and is starting to republish
the interviews online
. First out, both in the book and on-line this week, is the interview with Charles Simonyi. Interestingly, a lot of what Charles discuss in the interview are also hot topics for him today. (I’ll see if I can get Charles to reflect on this here.) By the way, in addition to Susan’s blog, there is also a discussion about this book at one of our favorite blogs – Lambda the Ultimate.