Saturday, January 16, 2010

Coders at Work by Peter Seibel

When I was eleven years old, my seventh-grade math teacher showed me this:

20 GOTO 10

When run, the program displayed on the screen a never-ending column of “HELLO”:


As I made the mental connection between the two lines of code and the output on the screen, I realized I could make it print “GOODBYE” instead of “HELLO.” And probably do other things.

The year was 1979. Relatively few people, and fewer kids, were using computers. As far as I could tell, writing a program was like making a machine, except the program was made of instructions, not physical parts. And that two-line program went faster than anything I’d seen a physical machine do. And like that stream of “HELLO”s, it could go on infinitely. And yes, it definitely could do other things.

Thirty years later, having explored many of those other things—only to realize how immensely more there is—I have not lost the fascination for the computer as a frontier to new possibilities. It’s a frontier that keeps extending as computers become more powerful and our understanding increases for how to harness that power.

With that preamble, I can now tell you about Coders at Work by Peter Seibel. It’s a book targeted to whatever is behind the above story, that impulse to explore what computers can do. The book features extended conversations with fifteen notable programmers, following their paths from first programs to famous projects, along the way discussing the craft, the ideals, and the challenges of their work. (That word work deserves qualification, because almost all the subjects were somehow smitten with computers first, then found a way to get paid to do what they loved.)

To appreciate Coders at Work, you need to be a relatively experienced programmer, because the shop talk does not come annotated. You also need to be interested in the old days—punch cards, Fortran, teletypes, time-sharing—because many of the conversations linger in the pre-PC era. And of course, you need to care about what makes for good programs and good programming. If those criteria work for you, the book will.

Here is the book’s Web site, which has some quotes from the various interviews, and the link at Amazon.

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