Coders at Work

by Peter Seibel

Cover image

Publisher: Apress
Copyright: 2009
ISBN: 1-4302-1948-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 601

Buy at Powell's Books

Coders at Work is a collection of edited interviews by Peter Seibel (probably best known previously for his book Practical Common Lisp) of an eclectic and excellent collection of fifteen programmers. It opens with an interview with Jamie Zawinski (one of the original Netscape developers) and closes with Donald Knuth. In between, the interview subjects range in programmer generations from Fran Allen (who started at IBM in 1957) and Bernie Cosell (one of the original ARPANET developers) to Brad Fitzpatrick (LiveJournal founder and original developer). Techniques and preferences also range widely, including two people involved in JavaScript development and standardization (Brendan Eich and Douglas Crockford), a functional programming language designer and developer (Simon Peyton Jones), language designers and standardizers such as Guy Steele, and people like Dan Ingalls who have a different experimental approach to programming than the normal application development focus. All of the interviewees are asked roughly the same basic questions, but each discussion goes in different directions. Seibel does an excellent job letting the interview subjects shape the discussion.

Two things immediately stood out for me about this book. First, it's huge, and that's not padding. There are just over 600 pages of content here, much of it fascinating. The discussions Seibel has are broad-ranging, covering topics from the best way to learn programming to history and anecdotes of the field. There's some discussion of technique, but primarily at the level of basic approaches and mindset. One typical question is how each programmer organizes their approach to reading code that isn't familiar with them. Each interviewee is also asked for book recommendations, for their debugging techniques, for their opinions on proving code correct, and how they design code. The participants are so different in their backgrounds and approaches that these conversations go in fifteen different directions. This is one of the most compelling and engrossing non-fiction books I've read.

Second, the selection of interview subjects, while full of well-known names in the field, is not the usual suspects. While I'm interested in the opinions of people like Larry Wall and Guido van Rossum, I've already heard quite a lot about how they think about programming. That's material that Coders at Work doesn't need to cover, and it doesn't. Many of the interview subjects here are people I'd heard of only vaguely or not at all prior to this book, often because they work in an area of programming that I'm not yet personally familiar with. Those who I had heard of, such as L. Peter Deutsch, I often knew in only one context (Ghostscript in that case) and was unfamiliar with the rest of their work. This gives the book a great exploratory feel and a lot of originality.

There is so much good material here that it's hard to give a capsule review. This is a book I'm highly likely to re-read, taking more detailed notes. There's entertaining snarking from Jamie Zawinski and Brendan Eich, fascinating history of the field (including in gender balance) from Fran Allen, and an intriguing interview with Joe Armstrong (creator of Erlang), who seems to have a far different attitude towards languages and libraries than the other interviewees. Every interview is full of gems, bits of insight that I now want to research or play with.

A couple of examples come to mind, just to provide a feel of the sort of insights I took out of the book. In the interview with Joshua Bloch, who does a lot of work on library APIs, he mentions that empathy is one of the most important skills for designing an API. You have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the programmer who's going to use the API and understand how it will feel to them. This came up in the context of a discussion about different types of programmers, and how programmers can be good at different things; the one who can do low-level deep optimization may not have that sense of empathy.

Another example: Bernie Cosell talked about how he did debugging, and how he got a reputation for being a fantastic debugger who was able to fix just about anything. He confessed that he often reached a portion of the code that he didn't understand, that seemed too complex and tricky for what it was attempting to accomplish, and rather than trace through it and try to understand it, he just rewrote it. And after rewriting, the bug was often gone. It wasn't really debugging, but at the same time it's close to the more recent concept of refactoring. Several of the interview subjects commented on a subjective feeling of complexity and how when it gets too high that's a warning sign that code may need to be rethought and rewritten.

A third example: I was fascinated by the number of interviewees who said that they used printf, assert, and eyeballs to debug rather than using any more advanced debugging tools. The former Lisp developers would often bemoan the primitiveness of tools like gdb, but many of them found that print statements and thinking hard about the code were usually all that's needed. (There was also a lot of discussion about test suites and test-driven development.) The general consensus was that concurrency problems were the hardest to debug; they made up a disproportional number of the responses to Seibel's question about the hardest bug the programmer ever had to track down.

I could go on giving similar examples at great length, but apart from the specific bits of wisdom, the strongest impact this book made on me was emotional. Coders at Work is full of people who love programming and love software, and that enthusiasm, both in general and for specific tools and ideas, comes through very clearly. I found it inspiring. I realized while reading this book, and I suspect I'm not alone among programmers in this, that I largely stopped learning how to program a few years back and have been reusing skills that I already have. Reading Coders at Work gave me a strong push towards finding ways to start learning, experimenting, and trying new techniques again. It also filled me with enthusiasm for the process of programming, which immediately helped my productivity on my own coding projects.

This is obviously a book whose primary target audience is practicing programmers, and while it doesn't go too far into language theory, I was relying on remembered terms and structure from my master's degree for a few of the interviews. I think it's approachable for anyone who has a working background in programming and a few languages or a CS degree, but it might be a stretch for someone new to the field. But even someone without any programming knowledge at all would get a lot out of the anecdotes and snapshots of the history of software development. Coders at Work is also full of jumping-off points for some additional research on Google or additional reading in other recommended books.

I only have one complaint, which I have to mention in passing: for such a large book full of interesting ideas and book recommendations, the index is wholly inadequate. I tried looking up five or six things in it, including the source of some of the book recommendations that are collected in an appendix, and I struck out every time. It's very hard to find something again in 600 pages, and more attention paid to the index would have been greatly appreciated.

But, despite that, for people within the target audience, I cannot recommend this book too highly. Not only was it full of useful information, at the level of programming above the code details that's often the hardest to talk about, but it's consistently entertaining and emotionally invigorating and inspiring. It made the rounds of tech blogs when it was first released, to nearly universal approval, and I can only echo that. If you're a practicing programmer, I don't think you'll regret spending a few weeks reading and thinking about this book.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-02-27

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