Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Coders at WorkCoders at Work by Peter Seibel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coders at Work has received a great deal of press within the Internet circles where I travel. Hardly a week goes by where someone doesn’t post an except onto reddit or Hacker News or something. So I was already fairly familiar with it and some of the interviews in it. That sort of press made it almost inevitable that I’d eventually buy it to read in full.

It’s a collection of interviews with fifteen different luminaries of the programming world. Surprisingly, I knew fewer than half of the names on the front cover before reading it; but, it turns out that I use software written by most of them. So that’s neat.

It should not be terribly surprising that a book of interviews with a bunch of different people does not lend itself to a singular review. Some reviews are noticeably better than others (that said, Professor Knuth’s chapter is worth the price of the book). What is surprising is that there are some broad themes which flow throughout.

Most of these guys (sadly: only one female voice is present; more sadly: this reflects the industry at large far more than it does Mr. Seibel’s choice of subjects) started programming when their high school gave them access to some big piece of IBM iron. Punch cards and paper tape flowed like wine. Most of them don’t see any point to TDD (agreed!) and shun the debugger in favor of print statements (disagreed!). There also seems to be a trend where the best of us are starting to look towards functional languages as the future. It might finally be time for me to investigate Haskell and Erland beyond reading the occasional blog post.

Most of the older folks have given up programming in favor of sheep farming or club-owning. Those who are still in the industry are in more managerial roles and don’t do a lot of coding on a day-to-day basis (though they might try to sneak some in every once in a while). In this respect, Professor Knuth’s interview (being the last one in the book) is refreshing. He makes a point of how he’s compelled to program every day. He’s the only one I can remember (note: I read this over the course of two months, so my memory is hazy) who kept talking about the program he was working on the day before. Such passion is exciting, and it’s a little sad that it didn’t infect the other subjects much. If I may take the extreme liberty of putting words into the mouths of my betters, most of them seem to see programming as a rewarding intellectual career choice more than something to be truly excited about it.

I can only hope that my own life path follows that of Knuth more than the others.

As far as reviewing this book goes, I think it’s probably more worthwhile than not. I don’t expect it to actively help me in my career in the same way that a more technical tome might but I think it provides some valuable context to the programming environment I find myself in in 2011. It’s probably a book I’ll go back and re-read in a few years to let it my brain absorb it a bit more. That said, I don’t find it a must-read (for programmers or anyone else). I think it will end up being an interesting diversion more than a seminal work. But, it also feels like a work with the potential to age well. I’ll be curious to see if it’s still read in a decade.

One final note: I bought the 600+ page paperback because I wanted something nice to put on my shelf. I really wish I’d bought the Kindle edition instead. The book is massive which makes it physically difficult to read. I wonder if the publisher considered charging an extra $10 and making it a two-volume boxed set…well, we’ll just have to consider that an opportunity lost.

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