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Programmers at Work: T+22 Years

On the heels of my recent posts related to great programmers of the 70s and 80s, Leonard Richardson comes out this week with an excellent “Where are they now?” follow-up that tracks down the current disposition of each of the programmers profiled in Susan Lammers’ 1986 book Programmers at Work, another influential text I read in my formative years as a developer.

Lammers’ book profiled what might now be called the original rockstar programmers: guys like Andy Hertzfeld, Charles Simonyi, Dan Bricklin, and Jonathan Sacks.

What’s striking is that unlike the rockstar entrepreneurs of today (on display in PaW’s equally zoological companion book from the 21st century, Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days), the programmers interviewed back in the mid-80s are humble, curious and focused on the code, perhaps even surprised that anyone would care to interview them about their work. In Founders, you can’t open a random page without encountering yet another insufferable ego (with the exception of a few notable interviews with founder Joshua Schacter and recently minted millionaire HOTorNOT founder James Hong); yet in Programmers at Work, the wonder shines through. There aren’t any Zed Shaws lurking in those pages.

Much of Programmers at Work holds up well even after 22 years. By today’s standards, a few of Lammers’ questions seem rather quaint (“Do you write a lot of comments in your programs?”), but then you’ll run into something interesting, like Simonyi taking a potshot at the “cult of simplicity” and how in the long run of computer science and other symbolic sciences, he believes that embracing complexity over simplicity will be what leads to the biggest breakthroughs. Leave it to the space-traveling creator of Hungarian notation to comment on that. At least Lammers didn’t ask Simonyi about his commenting style.

While The Soul Of A New Machine showed a deep slice of real coders and engineers at work and inspired almost through tacit observation, Programmers at Work captured the breadth of the development opportunities available, in the programmers’ own words, and by showing their own work products in a much more explicit and expository form.

More PaW stuff here: