Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming

Category: Programming
Author: Peter Seibel
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by chubot   2020-08-16
Yeah I wondered about the origin too. One thing I did during quarantine was re-read some old books on my bookshelf, including 2009's Coders at Work:

https://www.amazon.com/Coders-Work-Reflections-Craft-Program...

The Brendan Eich interview was really interesting, because it talked about bridging research and software engineering, specifically with regard to memory safety in C++ and debugging tools.

I think he was talking about manual annotations on C++. It seems clear that this interest morphed into sponsoring of Rust. I think Rust was a side project since 2006 and it was "announced" around 2010 (?).

And Mozilla also sponsored the "rr" reversible Debugger, which is also some very impressive engineering. (Sadly it seems to get less attention than Rust!)

Anyway, for PL nerds, I recommend reading this interview.

----

I think this work on software engineering tools is great, but as a Firefox user of 15+ years, it would be hard for me to argue that Firefox received sufficient attention. It does feel like the situation where the engineers work on the tools for too long and then management cancels both projects (which I've seen happen in my career).

by acqq   2020-07-06
It's about even more than that: it's about the complexity.

There's an inherent complexity in the problem being solved.

And there is an "accidental complexity" in the implementation of the solution.

Throwing away everything, people typically believe that they can avoid handling a lot of the "inherent complexity." But typically there is a good reason why the inherent complexity was addressed in the previous version of the program, and there's a big chance that the new "from the scratch" designers will have to relearn and rediscover all that, instead of transforming the already existing knowledge that is encoded in the previous version.

For anybody interested in the topic, I recommend the number of case studies presented in:

https://www.amazon.com/Search-Stupidity-Twenty-Marketing-Dis...

"In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters"

See about new rewrite of Wordstar simply not having the printer drivers that the previous had, and also other features people already expected, leading to Wordstar's demise.

Or what Zawinski's names "Cascade of Attention-Deficit Teenagers" (search the internet for that, the link here wouldn't work!)

"I'm so totally impressed at this Way New Development Paradigm. Let's call it the "Cascade of Attention-Deficit Teenagers" model, or "CADT" for short."

"It hardly seems worth even having a bug system if the frequency of from-scratch rewrites always outstrips the pace of bug fixing. Why not be honest and resign yourself to the fact that version 0.8 is followed by version 0.8, which is then followed by version 0.8?"

Or an interview with Jamie Zawinski from Siebel's "Coders at Work."

https://www.amazon.com/Coders-Work-Reflections-Craft-Program...

... "even phrasing it that way makes it sounds like there’s someone who’s actually in charge making that decision, which isn’t true at all. All of this stuff just sort of happens. And one of the things that happens is everything get rewritten all the time and nothing’s ever finished. If you’re one of those developers, that’s fine because there’s always something to play around with if your hobby is messing around with your computer rather than it being a means to an end — being a tool you use to get whatever you’re actually interested in done."

If one is able to cover all the complexity, and it is not destructive to the goal, the rewrite is OK. Otherwise, one should be critical to the ideas of rewrites as they could be potentially secretly motivated by simple (jwz again): "rewriting everything from scratch is fun (because "this time it will be done right", ha ha)"

by bhntr3   2019-08-20
Yes. The article is a bit tautological. It's not defining seniority in terms of time spent. He actually says this at the end. Instead he's defining a "senior developer" as someone who has a necessary mix of the qualities he talks about. It would be more accurate to say "These are the traits your manager will tell you to develop to get promoted."

Personally, my favorite book about old coders is Coders At Work (https://www.amazon.com/Coders-Work-Reflections-Craft-Program...). It's a bunch of interviews with programmers who have created programming languages and lots of the fundamental software we all rely on. It showed me what the journey to being a great programmer can look like.

To me, senior is a corporate term. Great programmers build great things. Senior developers get promoted. I sometimes ask young programmers this: Do you care about the craft or the career? I think being a great programmer will make a person money. There aren't that many truly great programmers. But if they're impatient or they don't think they can be great, they can probably be senior.

Becoming senior is easy: Just help your boss accomplish their goals. Pay attention and develop skills that will help you do this no matter where you are and what you're working on. If you over-specialize in a specific organization or person's need, you become the expert beginner and you can't leave or you will struggle.

Some of the things that help a person be senior can also make them great. But the path to being great is a very different and personal one (at least that's the impression I got from Coders At Work. I make no claims for myself.) Jeff Dean is undoubtedly a great programmer and was also the most senior developer at Google for a long time. They made new levels just for him. So they can overlap. If someone is lucky and their job is great, the things that make them senior can also make them great. If their job sucks and management is terrible, they'll have to choose every day between doing something great or doing something to get promoted (being senior.)

My favorite article on the journey of a software engineer is this one: https://medium.com/@webseanhickey/the-evolution-of-a-softwar... . To me it's the story of someone who started off trying to be senior but then started to become great.

by rpeden   2018-11-10
You might enjoy Steven Levy's Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution[1]. It's not too focused on specific people or companies, although you'll encounter some well known people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Richard Stallman in the book. It's an interesting read because it gives you a great background that helps you understand how we ended up with the tech culture and environment we have today.

In the reply to another comment, I also mentioned Coders at Work[2]. I found that it provided some great insight into the early days of some fascinating companies from a technical perspective.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Hackers-Computer-Revolution-Steven-Le... [2] https://www.amazon.com/Coders-Work-Reflections-Craft-Program...

by tretiy3   2018-10-23
All the guys from "Coders at work" [1]: - Jamie Zawinski - Brad Fitzpatrick - Douglas Crockford - Brendan Eich - Joshua Bloch - Joe Armstrong - Symon Peyton Jones - Peter Norvig - Guy Steele - Dan Ingalls - L Peter Deutsch - Ken Thompson - Fran Allen - Bernie Cossel - Donald Knuth [1] https://www.amazon.com/Coders-Work-Reflections-Craft-Program...
by danso   2017-08-19
For anyone who hasn't browsed through Peter Seibel's "Coders at Work," one of his subjects is Fran Allen...it's kind of funny because I do agree that learning C has been valuable to the high-level programming I do today (but only because I was forced to learn it in school). But there's always another level below you that can be valuable...Allen says C killed her interest in programming...not because it was hard, but because of, in her opinion, it led engineers to abandon work in compiler optimization (her focus was in high-performance computing):

(Excerpted from: Peter Seibel. Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (Kindle Location 6269). Kindle Edition: http://www.amazon.com/Coders-Work-Reflections-Craft-Programm... )

Seibel: When do you think was the last time that you programmed?

Allen: Oh, it was quite a while ago. I kind of stopped when C came out. That was a big blow. We were making so much good progress on optimizations and transformations. We were getting rid of just one nice problem after another. When C came out, at one of the SIGPLAN compiler conferences, there was a debate between Steve Johnson from Bell Labs, who was supporting C, and one of our people, Bill Harrison, who was working on a project that I had at that time supporting automatic optimization...The nubbin of the debate was Steve's defense of not having to build optimizers anymore because the programmer would take care of it. That it was really a programmer's issue....

Seibel: Do you think C is a reasonable language if they had restricted its use to operating-system kernels?

Allen: Oh, yeah. That would have been fine. And, in fact, you need to have something like that, something where experts can really fine-tune without big bottlenecks because those are key problems to solve. By 1960, we had a long list of amazing languages: Lisp, APL, Fortran, COBOL, Algol 60. These are higher-level than C. We have seriously regressed, since C developed. C has destroyed our ability to advance the state of the art in automatic optimization, automatic parallelization, automatic mapping of a high-level language to the machine. This is one of the reasons compilers are ... basically not taught much anymore in the colleges and universities.

by spion   2017-08-19
I keep seeing this argument all the time. Lets put a counter-argument-by-authority: Fran Allen [1] thinks that the C was a huge step backwards in language design [2], and there is no reason to think that Go didn't repeat the same pattern.

Interestingly, the article you quoted mentions functional programming and immutable data as the step to go from 200K to 2M lines. Go is fundamentally incapable of functional programming* and its builtins allow pervasive mutable state.

[1]: http://www.amazon.com/Coders-Work-Reflections-Craft-Programm...

* Its impossible to support FP without generics. Even the most basic higher order functions require type variables.