Coders at Work

Who should get this book

This book is definitely for programmers. It’s a series of 15 lively interviews with legendary figures in software development, covering question ranging from what makes code beautiful to how to recognize a good programmer. If you are interested in the history of the young field of software, and want to get some perspective from highly respected people in the area, this book is for you!

3 things I enjoyed about it

Hear what the Masters have to say: every developer has his/her opinion on what good code is, whether comments are good or bad, or how to debug a program. This book gives you the opportunity to hear what people who really know what they are talking about think about this. Chances are, you won’t be able to talk about this with Donald Knuth around the water cooler and hear his take – you’ll get that with this book. Furthermore, having 15 different takes on similar questions provides an interesting way to compare views, and see where everyone agrees, and where there is disagreement.

A lively discussion: full credit goes to the author, Peter Seibel. He is a great interviewer, and has solid credentials as a developer, and it shows. He asks great questions, and the excitement of the discussion shows in the book. It’s also full of anecdotes and stories from the trenches, and fantastic quotes, making it a really entertaining read.

Literate programming: I was at least familiar with most topic discussed in the book, but I had never heard of literate programming before. Most of the interviews discussed this approach to programming, and generated interesting discussions - and made me curious about it.

3 ways I would have liked it better

Old school: I often feel that I started computing in the Dark Ages. I mean, my first computer had no mouse and hard drive, and its floppy drive made it cutting edge. Most of the guys in the book have worked with punch cards, and talk about devices which I can’t even begin to imagine the purpose of (rotating cylinders?). On one hand, it makes for great anecdotes, and gives a broader perspective on software development. On the other hand, it felt a few times like what they are describing is a bit disconnected from my own experience.

Length: I really enjoyed the book, but I had to read it by small installments. As much as I am a geek, there is just that much I can read about this in one single day!

… and I couldn’t find a third criticism.

Final thoughts

I really enjoyed that book, and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in software development, and its history. There are two points that I found intriguing in the book. First, no one seems to like C++ – which came a bit as a surprise to me. I don’t use C++ myself, but I naively thought that as a widely used OO language, it would have supporters. It doesn’t seem to be the case. The other point I found interesting is that the idea of design patterns was shot down by quite a few people, with arguments along the lines of the architecture astronaut criticism dear to Joel Spolsky. I definitely respect that opinion, but I wonder if this is generational, and has to do in part with developers used to work with low-level languages, in a time when low-level concerns mattered more than today.

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