Programmers are among the most influential people who are quietly changing the world. Software is an inseparable part of human life in this modern world, and programmers are tinkering with programs, continuously influencing a specific set of people and sometimes all of humanity.
As the title states, programmers are the subject of this book. Thompson dives deep and elaborates in detail on the many aspects of being a programmer. It includes their thought processes, their business acumen, their social lives, as well as the effects of their actions on the world. For instance, he emphasizes that programs provide a feeling of control, where programmers command and the atoms of silicon follow. This feeling of control is joyful yet addictive. The pleasure that comes from a working program motivates programmers to glue themselves to their laptops with monk-like concentration and patience, forgetting any sense of time. The author elaborates on the frequently seen earphone-wearing character, lost in his parallel world, trying to put together all the bits in the pursuit of achieving the goal at hand.
The most gripping part of the book is the way Thompson delivers interwoven stories from the real world, bead by bead, to highlight the characteristics of programmers. Personalized stories directly from highly influential individuals, both known and unknown, make this book a delightful read. For instance, it is interesting to learn how Instagram was born from Burbn, an app designed to share nightlife experiences. Similarly, many of the included short stories and incidents look at the world of software from an evolutionary perspective.
The book is not limited to modern advancements in the software world. The author also discusses the early rock stars who used room-size IBMs to design the programs carrying out calculations. Inspiring examples include Mary Allen Wilkes and Wesley Clark: Wilkes graduated in philosophy and planned on practicing law, but a love for machines drew her to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); the exciting story of Wesley Clark, who envisioned personal computers for each scientist, shows the immense struggle to invent something worthwhile.
Being a programmer myself, I concur when the author states that developers are often on an emotional roller coaster, from a curious state to a long zombie state, and from that half-dead state to a frustrating state, and finally to “aha!” moments leading to a state of pride and joy. Many of the author’s metaphors provide a meaningful perspective. For instance, he compares code with poetry that is short and concise but conveys a deeper meaning (or functionality). Another metaphor relates a “like” (or social media attention in general) to cocaine; this is not difficult to spot, especially in millennials who are constantly searching for that digital “fix.”
I applaud the author for bringing in social issues such as discrimination based on sex and the dark side of social media platforms in the form of trolls. Thompson wonders at the drastic change in the software industry, from a history that includes an all-woman team of ENIAC programmers to an industry where it is often difficult for women to thrive. He provides a realistic picture of the tech industry by discussing recent events in well-known software development organizations.
Apart from some discussions that were a bit of a stretch, I enjoyed reading this book. It speaks to me as a programmer and a researcher, and paints the life of a programmer, from both the outside (their behavior and the impact they make) and the inside (their thought processes), in a way that even a nonprogrammer can appreciate.
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