Vladimir Sedach

Have Emacs - Will Hack

September 2, 2009

Book review: Peter Seibel's Coders at Work

Topic: Book reviews

My review of Peter Seibel's Coders at Work originally appeared on Slashdot:

Aside from authoring narrowly focused technical books, teaching university courses, or mentoring others in the workplace, programmers do not often get a chance to pass on the knowledge of the practise of programming as a profession. Peter Seibel's Coders at Work takes fifteen world-class programmers and distills their wisdom into a book of interviews with each of them.

The list of coders interviewed includes some geek household names like Donald Knuth and jwz, but also some not so well-known ones such as Bernie Cosell (one of the programmers behind the ARPANET IMP, the first Internet router) and Fran Allen (compiler pioneer). The full list of people interviewed is available on the book's website. The eras embodied by the interviewees range from the very beginnings of software as we know it today, to the heyday of the Internet boom, when people like Brad Fitzpatrick made their mark.

Seibel himself is a coder and author (having the well-received Practical Common Lisp under his belt). It is then no surprise that the interviews are packed with technical details, which (with one exception, explained below) restricts the intended audience of the book to those already familiar with programming.

Coders at Work manages to communicate the wisdom of programmers of bygone eras, while simultaneously being heavily colored by very contemporary issues. JavaScript, its consequences and its discontents, is a topic recurring throughout the book. More than just a recounting of history, Coders at Work should inspire readers to learn about the wider context of their craft and stop the reinvention of the proverbial wheel decried by several of the interviewees in its pages.

Given the related subject matter, the people interviewed in Coders at Work who played a role in creating major programming languages (Armstrong, Eich, and Steele), and close publication dates of the two books, inevitable comparisons will be drawn between Coders at Work and Federico Biancuzzi and Shane Warden's Masterminds of Programming (I previously reviewed Masterminds of Programming on my blog). There is a lot of common ground between the two books in terms of technical areas covered, but Coders at Work clearly comes out on top.

Part of the reason has to do with the fact that Seibel's choice of interviewees is stellar. Masterminds of Programming's niche focus on programming language designers meant that its authors had a tougher job than Seibel, but details like the omission of Alan Kay (creator of Smalltalk and one of the most influential programming language designers in the field's history) from Masterminds are nothing short of dumbfounding.

Just as important to making Coders at Work a good book is the fact that Seibel is a great interviewer. Seibel's questions felt more open-ended than those in Masterminds, and the resulting interviews have a flow and narrative that makes them engrossing to read and gives the programmers interviewed a chance to explore details in-depth.

A refreshing aspect of Coders at Work are the interviewees who don't shy away from strong opinions or humor, as shown in this remark by Peter Deutsch: "I think Larry Wall has a lot of nerve talking about language design--Perl is an abomination as a language." One aspect where Coders unintentionally shines is as a guide to finding and hiring programming talent. Even non-technical managers will benefit greatly by reading those excerpts of the interviews concerned with hiring programmers.

Another unexpected aspect of the book is the breadth of topics discussed — everything from debugging machine code to women's issues in computing workplace and education.

One area where Coders could stand improvement is in its length. Not all of the coders interviewed possessed the gift of brevity, and many interview answers could have been edited to reduce their length without affecting the message.

In her interview, Fran Allen makes an interesting assertion — programming and computer science need to become more socially relevant. Other scientific and engineering fields are filled with well-known personalities, described in prominent interviews, biographies, and major Hollywood films. The only "software people" to appear in the public spotlight are the CEOs of major software firms. Ultimately, its role in helping programming assert its status as a socially relevant profession may be the most important contribution of Coders at Work.