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Book Review: Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers

Posted in Book Reviews, Programming and Software Development, Technology by engtech on May 10, 2007

programmers at work susan lammers bill gates charles simonyi butler lampson jef raskin quote quotationsI heard about Programmers at Work in the blog buzz surrounding the release of Founders at Work. Programmers at Work is a 20 year old book (1985) that interviews some of the top programmers of that era about the art of programming. It is not widely in print anymore, but it was easy to find a copy at my local library. When I picked it up at the library I wondered how relevant would it still be? The only constant with technology is how fast it changes.

Interviews with 19 Programmers Who Shaped the Computer Industry

  • Charles Simonyi – one of the people from Xerox PARC, the guy behind Hungarian notation and the Microsoft Office applications. Worth $1 Billion, the 5th space tourist and dating Martha Stewart.
  • Butler Lampson – one of the people from Xerox PARC, came up with the full size monitor and mouse combination, laserprinters and Ethernet.
  • John Warnock – one of the people from Xerox PARC, co-founder of Adobe, creator of PostScript.
  • Gary Kildall – creator of CP/M, which was stolen to create MS-DOS.
  • Bill Gates – Microsoft.
  • John Page
  • C. Wayne Ratliff – creator of dBASE II, the first widely popular database program for PCs.
  • Dan Bricklin – creator of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for PCs.
  • Bob Frankston – creator of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for PCs.
  • Jonathan Sachs – creator of Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program and cofounder of Lotus Development Corporation.
  • Ray Ozzie – creator of Lotus Notes, current Chief Software Architect at Microsoft.
  • Peter Roizen
  • Bob Carr
  • Jef Raskin – started the Macintosh program at Apple.
  • Andy Hertzfeld – part of the original Macintosh group at Apple (creator of Scrapbook and Control Panel), creator of the Nautilius file manager for Linux/GNOME, currently working for Google.
  • Toru Iwatani – creator of Pac-man arcade game.
  • Scott Kim
  • Jason Lanier – coined the term Virtual Reality.
  • Michael Hawley

The choice of interviewees was very telling of the era. There are several names that are still well known because of their involvement with Microsoft or Apple, but others were included because of the spreadsheet or database application they had created at the time. The early 80s were all about how the personal computer will influence society and wordprocessing / spreadsheet / database applications becoming available for the home user. This is the era that would lead to the creation of Microsoft Office.

But what if it had been written ten years later in 1995? Then the focus would have been on Windows NT and the upcoming Windows 95 that would revolutionize the home marketplace. Would the Internet (www and email) have been mentioned? What about open source software and Linux? In 1995 MySQL was being released for the first time. The disruptive force LAMP (Linux+Apache+MySQL+Perl/PHP) would have on the server market wouldn’t have been on the radar yet.

Much of the programming advice is still relevant, although it can be a slog to find it in between all of the history and focus on products long dead. The author also spends a lot of time asking questions of the impact of CD-ROMs and the future of artificial intelligence. This is where Programmers at Work shows its age. The hopes people had for CD-ROMs weren’t truly realized until the Internet took into full swing, and they completely missed how CD-Rs would begin the great shift in digitization and piracy of media that we are still coming to grips with. Artificial intelligence innovation was dead for most of the 80s, and modern AI is focused on probability theory, statistics and data mining more than having your house talk to you.

It’s near impossible to predict technology changes beyond the next year. Whatever you are focused on, the things that will change the landscape ten years from now are completely off of your radar. Even the sections of the book about virtual reality underestimated that twenty years later our interface to VR would be programs like World of Warcraft and Second Life.

I’ve always peripherally followed tech news but never as much as in the past year when I started this blog. It’s important to remember to stay grounded and not fall too hard for New Gadget Syndrome and “this changes everything!” hype. The technology that truly changes the world often doesn’t get hyped until we are on the cusp of that change.

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6 Responses

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  1. KindAndThoughtful said, on May 10, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    This is the first time I have visited your blog. I am very impressed. I will be telling all my computer engineering friends about this site. It is fantastic. Keep up the great work.

  2. Webomatica said, on May 10, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    Hmmm, this looks like a cool book. I’ll have to see if it’s in the library system around here.

    I get a strange thrill of looking at old computer books as it certainly is a reality check about what was considered awesome technology back then is incredibly dated. As an apple nut I’ve pored over old back issues of MacWorld and have two older Mac books as part of the collection.

    I’d also recommend Revolution in the Valley if you’re at all interested in the programmers dealing with the corporate world thing. Bricklin, Hertzfeld, and Raskin feature heavily in there. Although, I’m sure you’ve checked out the website: http://www.folklore.org/

  3. [...] nerd and his blogAbout Me « What I learned in my first year of blogging Book Review: Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers [...]

  4. Susan Lammers said, on May 20, 2007 at 5:56 am

    the book is available for sale on Amazon if you’re interested. We did a special anniversary edition in 2006 for a conference.

    Enjoy. And thanks for the review 20 years after! It is a book that at least at some level, perhaps the creative drive in technology, keeps its relevance.

  5. [...] Book Review: Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers What you can learn about programming from reading a book that’s 20 years old. [...]

  6. [...] 1 – Did you know that Smalltalk inspired the Macintosh GUI? Smallpark was yet another example of the magic that was going on at XEROX PARC in the 70s. These are the guys who invented the mouse, colour graphic, windows/icons for a GUI, WYSIWYG text editors, Ethernet (how you talk to other computers on a network), and laser printers. Programmers at Work featured interviews with some of the people from PARC. [...]


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