Sean Voisen

Coders at work

December 5, 2010

Recently, I finished reading Peter Seibel’s Coders at Work. If you’re a programmer interested in the history and critique of your craft, here’s a book worth perusing. Coders at Work is a collection of fifteen interviews with some of the most “famous” or “interesting” programmers alive today. I wrap “famous” and “interesting” in scare quotes because they’re subjective terms at best – especially in as diverse a field as computing – so perhaps “programmers who have achieved renown whilst working on high-profile projects” is a more accurate description of those in question. For instance, though I’d only personally heard of at least seven of the book’s fifteen interviewees, of the seven, only three – Donald Knuth, Peter Norvig and L. Peter Deutsch – had I any significant acquaintance with their writings or work. Nevertheless, fame or fortune notwithstanding, those interviewed in the book are programmers with decades of wisdom and experience (well, except maybe Brad Fitzpatrick), and it’s certainly worth considering their stories, advice and opinions. At the very least, if only to learn what not to do. (Oh, and how painful it was to be a programmer in the days of punch cards.)

Because it’s a collection of transcribed interviews, there’s really no legitimate reason to read Coders at Work linearly from cover to cover. In fact, if you do pick up this book, I wouldn’t recommend doing so (though, ill-informed as I was, that’s exactly what I did). Instead, it’s probably best to cherry-pick chapters on a whim. The reason for this is simple: redundancy. One of the more interesting attributes of Coders at Work is also its greatest weakness: the astonishing consensus of opinion on a wide group of topics from such a diverse group of programmers. On issues as far ranging as a language design, job interview strategies, computer science books worth reading, code readability and formatting, debugging strategies, and how to classify programming as craftsmanship, science, engineering or art, there is remarkable similarity of response. While not all of the fifteen ever completely agree on anything — in fact, in some instances there’s quite polarized disagreement — generally the redundancy of advice and information renders itself simultaneously enlightening and tiresome.

Here’s a summary of what I gleaned to be the majority opinion on a few of the less-divisive topics:

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg and Coders at Works covers much more than this. If anything, I’d say what I got most of the book was inspiration. Yes, the current state of modern software is disheartening. Yes, it’s too complex, too inflexible, too massive, too unreliable, too unfriendly, too riddled with bugs. But the field is young and there’s still hope. Here’s a group of people who have made significant contributions to solving these problems simply by following their passion. Maybe we can too.

But first things first: we need to stop calling ourselves “coders.”

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