Ada Lovelace: The first programmer. She devised algorithms for Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine,” which he never built. Heralded as “the end of food.” Contains potato and rice starches, oat flour, oils, vitamins, and minerals. It was invented in 2013 by Rob Rhinehart, a programmer hoping to make mealtime more efficient. Price: $70 for a bag of Soylent powder, or about $3 per meal.
A fizzy drink from a Bavarian brewery sold mostly in Europe. It’s made from yerba mate, which has caffeine and polyphenols. Programmers also loooove coffee.
Widely rated as having best-in-class hardware, these machines are capable of running Mac as well as Windows and Linux operating systems.
Developers use scores of different text editors, programs that allow them to more easily write and debug code. Favorites include Sublime Text, Text Wrangler, and Brackets.
Nerds in countless online forums pine after this discontinued modular Ikea workstation, which allows a user to customize desk and shelf height. It sells for about $250 on EBay.
With four preset heights, a steel frame, and dual motors that lift or lower the tabletop at 1.1 inches per second, this desk can support up to 335 pounds. It comes in small ($949) and large ($985).
— John Backus, 1979, in Think, the IBM employee magazine
That’s the same program that we wrote in C, page 50, the one that ever-so-usefully prints a list of squares. You can pick up the weird metallic smell of large computer centers with raised floors just by looking at some Fortran.
It excels at the numerical computing needed by scientists and still beats C for some tasks. Physicists and astronomers like (well, live with) Fortran.
Lisp, though, is another kind of beast. It emerged straight out of mathematical research. There are many things that made Lisp peculiar. Some people say it stands for “Lots of superfluous parentheses.”
(defun squares (count)(dotimes(n count)(formatt"~a "(*(+ n 1)(+ n 1)))))(squares10)
Back in the 1980s, while the Fortran programmers were off optimizing nuclear weapon yields, Lisp programmers were trying to get a robot to pick up a teddy bear or write a sonnet. But one day, the people who ran the funding parts of the world came in, yelled, “Shut it all down,” and pulled a big red switch (which was probably programmed in Fortran). The Lisp programmers, who had yet to simulate a human brain or automatically produce a great sonnet, were left with only regret.
The Lisp machine companies began to shut down and sell off their assets. Students were more likely to learn C or Java. Lisp became a cautionary tale, its unique, unified vision of the computer a fond memory of a better era. And yet …
There’s still quite a bit of Lisp in the world, such as in the air-travel data system built by ITA, which was acquired by Google. When you Google “flight from nyc to berlin,” ITA is in there in the background, running Lisp. There was a time when Lisp looked to be deader than ancient Greek: a beautiful philosophical system, but not practical.
Lisp blurs the line between code and data in the way it allows functions to refer to themselves. It works, but it’s a little much to ask a regular programmer to see the world as infinitely programmable. We need clarity.
Which means we really need to talk about data.
5 The Time You Attended the E-mail Address Validation Meeting
In the interest of understanding more about how all this works, and with an open invitation from TMitTB, you attend a meeting of the programmers.
Two of them are late, and bravely you ask the one already in attendance to explain what’s going on. He quickly gathers the limits of your information through a series of questions, beginning with, “Do you know what a Web page is?”
Here’s what he shows you: To gather an e-mail address and a name, you can make a Web page using HTML.
<html><body><h1>Make an account</h1><formmethod="post"action="/">
And that looks like this:
On today’s agenda: How to make sure that registration is a positive experience for users but also a secure experience for the company. The questions to be discussed, the programmer tells you, are along the lines of, “Where will you put this data? Will you put it in a text file? What will you do with it? How will you act upon it?”
Enter the remaining two programmers. Programmer A, who is senior, takes her place at the whiteboard. …
Push Button: Most commonly used button
Gradient Button: Usually below lists or grids
Rounded Rect Button: Used for filtering in Mac Finder and Mail
Rounded Textured Button: Designed for toolbars only
Textured Button: Usage is a mystery
Recessed Button: Used as a toggle button only
Inline Button: New style of push button or indicator
Apple and Microsoft, Amazon and Google: factory factories. Their APIs are the products of many thousands of hours of labor from many programmers. Think of the work involved. Someone needs to manage the SDK. Hundreds of programmers need to write the code for it. People need to write the documentation and organize the demos. Someone needs to fight for a feature to get funded and finished. Someone needs to make sure the translation into German is completed and that there aren’t any embarrassing mistakes that go viral on Twitter. Someone needs to actually write the software that goes into making the IDE work.
The modern OS is a feast of wonders: fast video, music players, buckets of buttons. Apple may be the best imaginary button maker in history. Just the bezels are a work to behold. Today there are 15 bezel styles, from NSThickSquareBezelStyle to NSSmallSquareBezelStyle.
Freedom. (Sort of. They’re still just bezels.) Things that used to require labor and care—showing a map, rotating a giant 3D landscape—can now be done with a few lines of code.
When everyone goes to Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco and they stare rapturously as some man in an untucked, expensive shirt talks about “core data,” this is the context. Onstage, presenting its Kits, Apple is rearranging abstractions, saying: Look at the new reality we’ve defined, the way that difficult things are now easy and drab things can be colorful. Your trust in our platform and your dedication of thousands of hours of time have not been misplaced.
They’ve pitched variations on this annually for 30 years.
In Xcode you can compile everything with one command, and up pops your software for testing. You can see the button you made. You need to click on it. It yearns for clicks. It cries out in a shrill signaling voice like a nano cat on a microfence. Everything inside a computer beseeches everything else. It’s a racket. You click your mouse, and the button cat is finally satisfied. Now the computer can increase the volume, change the color, or bring out the talking paper clip. Destiny fulfilled and, after many rounds of this, test complete.
When your app is done, you may sell it in an app store. And if users are excited to use your app, they’ll be motivated to buy more apps. Loops upon loops, feeding into one another, capital accruing to the coffers of the patient software giants. An ecosystem. “Ecosystem” is another debased word, especially given what we keep doing to the real, physical one around us. But if a few hundred thousand people are raising their kids and making things for 100 million people, that’s what they call it.
6.1 The Framework: Wilder, Younger Cousin of the Software Development Kit
Odds are, if you’re doing any kind of programming, especially Web programming, you’ve adopted a framework. Whereas an SDK is an expression of a corporate philosophy, a framework is more like a product pitch. Want to save time? Tired of writing the same old code? Curious about the next new thing? You use a graphics framework to build graphical applications, a Web framework to build Web applications, a network framework to build network servers. There are hundreds of frameworks out there; just about every language has one.
Unix, Linux kernel, Python, Perl, PHP
Windows, Google Chrome, software for F-35 fighter jets
Instagram, Pinterest, Spotify, YouTube
What if you are going to serve only a few hundred thousand pages a month? Then you’ve got tremendous breathing room. You don’t need too many engineers to create the system architecture. You still need to plan, but in general you can read some blog posts and follow along with what others have done. You can be pretty sloppy, to be honest. Again, any language will do.
What if you want to include a live, person-to-person chat on those pages, and you expect thousands of people to use that chat at once, all speaking to each other? Now you’re dipping your hand into that godforsaken river. But that is exactly the problem that Go was designed to solve. It’s a language for creating highly available servers that use as much of the computer’s processor as possible. It has other features as well, but this is where Go shines. Actually, Node.js works pretty well for that sort of server, too, and Clojure certainly has the capacity. Oh, right, Java works, too. If you really needed to, you could even do it in PHP.
This is why the choice is so hard. Everything can do everything, and people will tell you that you should use everything to do everything. So you need to figure out for yourself what kind of team you have, what kind of frameworks you like using, where people can be most productive, so they will stick around through the completion of the project. This is hard. Most places can’t do this. So they go with the lowest common denominator—Java, PHP—because they know that when people leave, they’ll be able to get more of them.
And that’s OK. The vast majority of technology projects don’t require original research, nor do they require amazing technological discoveries. All the languages under discussion work just fine. There are great coders in all of them.
But the choice of a main programming language is the most important signaling behavior that a technology company can engage in. Tell me that you program in Java, and I believe you to be either serious or boring. In Ruby, and you are interested in building things quickly. In Clojure, and I think you are smart but wonder if you ship. In Python, and I trust you implicitly. In PHP, and we sigh together. In C++ or C, and I nod humbly. In C#, and I smile and assume we have nothing in common. In Fortran, and I ask to see your security clearance. These languages contain entire civilizations.
You can tell how well code is organized from across the room. Or by squinting or zooming out. The shape of code from 20 feet away is incredibly informative. Clean code is idiomatic, as brief as possible, obvious even if it’s not heavily documented. Colloquial and friendly. As was written in Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (aka SICP), the seminal textbook of programming taught for years at MIT, “A computer language is not just a way of getting a computer to perform operations … it is a novel formal medium for expressing ideas about methodology. Thus, programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.” A great program is a letter from current you to future you or to the person who inherits your code. A generous humanistic document.
Of course all of this is nice and flowery; it needs to work, too.
One day you go to the pen where they keep the programmers. Their standup starts at 10 a.m., and some hold cups of coffee. They actually stand. Mostly men, a few women. They go around the room, and each person says what he did yesterday, what he plans to do today, and if he has any blockers. Most of the people are in the office, so they’re doing the standup in person; when people are traveling, they do it over chat. Two people are dialed in, the new hires from Boston and Hungary, both with strong accents. They tell the same story as the rest.
“Yesterday I worked on the account deletion user story,” Boston says. “Number 265. Today I’m writing the unit tests for the account deletion code. I’m not blocked. I nominate Istvan to go next.”
The line unmutes, and a thick Hungarian accent says, “Yes, yesterday I worked on catalog admin tools, for product upload. I completed the image upload feature. Today I will also write unit tests. I am not blocked.”
TMitTB says, “Istvan, did you update JIRA?” (JIRA is a commercial service that functions as the official record of the project.)
It’s strange to hear the things you approve as line items discussed as if they were real, actual things. But also pleasing.
On the Wikipedia page for “Software development process,” there’s a list of links to pages: “TDD BDD FDD DDD MDD”—“test-driven development,” “behavior-driven development,” “feature-driven development,” “domain-driven design,” and “model-driven development.” Each one has its advocates and its critics. I include these only for your amusement. If you want to go deeper on management methodologies, have at it.
The management of programmers is a discipline unto itself. There are subdisciplines that deal with how coders communicate. The most prominent is the “Agile methodology,” which calls for regular coordination among programmers, providing a set of rituals and norms they can follow to make their programs work with the programs of others.
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
There are 17 signatories. And there are as many variations of Agile. I’ve had terrible meetings in my life when I sat between two teams and one of them explained, at length, why Agile with Kanban was better than Agile with Scrum. You could smell the money burning.
Here is Agile, as I’ve seen it done: You break down your product into a set of simple-to-understand user stories about who needs what. You file those stories into an issue-tracking system, often a commercial product such as JIRA.
You divide work into sprints of a week, two weeks, or whatever suits your management style, and you give each sprint a name and a goal (implement search, user registration), then the programmers take stories to go off and make them happen.
Every day your team checks in and tries to unblock one another—if you are working on the tool that sends e-mail and the e-mail server isn’t working, you tell everyone. Then someone else steps up to help, or you stick with that story and do the best you can, but everyone needs to be working toward the sprint goal, trying to release some software. And once the sprint is done, you deliver something that actually, really works and move on to the next thing, slowly bringing a large, complex system into operation.
That’s an ideal case. Done well, it avoids magical thinking (“It will all work when we get everything done and wired together”). It has its critics and can seem to have as many branches (c.f. Scrum, Kanban, and “Agile with Discipline”) as Protestantism.
Programmers are forever searching for a silver bullet and, worse, they always think they’ve found it. Which is why Frederick Brooks, the most famous of the early software methodologists, wrote a paper called “No Silver Bullet—Essence and Accident in Software Engineering.” He wrote it in 1986. He was very hopeful, back then, that object-oriented programming would help fix things.
Into your office comes TMitTB. He holds a large bottle of some sort and a laptop, and he looks sleepy. You tell him so, with a smile.
“We got to a release,” he says. “Ran a little into last night.”
He opens the laptop and brings up a secret website that, he assures you, can be seen only within the confines of the office’s network, or via the virtual private network.
It’s a plain and homely thing, the new website. Squares bumping into squares. The catalog and the items in the catalog are up on the screen, but there are no images. The text has all sorts of weird characters in it, strange bugs. There are products with the names “fake product” and “not real product” and “I hate all products.”
There are no “related items” to purchase, even though that’s a critical feature and one of the major revenue drivers on the current site. You suppress the question. It will be there.
There is, however, a way to log in with a username and password. TMitTB has done you the favor of creating, for you, an account. You are, he says, the first nonengineering person to test the site.
“This is real?” you ask.
“Yes. This is software. It speaks to the database. This is what we’ll release.”
“Does it speak to customer service?”
He squints for a second.
“In July,” he says.
My God, a date. You’ve extracted a month, something positively deadline-ish.
He did as you asked. He managed outward, and he began to gum up the works in familiar ways. He started demanding documents of people who immediately began not providing them. He asked relative strangers for their insights and suggestions, and they gave them willingly. They asked for the logo to be bigger. They asked for games that could be played inside the app. He listened to them all. He hasn’t been to a conference in months.
“So this is the real, actual website.”
“Yes,” he says, taking a sip from a complicated, fermented beverage with a health-food-store mandala-style label. A sticker on the bottle says, “$3.99.”
“Now we do the next sprint,” he says. “We push for July. And we release mid-August.”
He looks tired, this man. But he also looks proud. The things on the screen—his team put them there, and they used good, modern tools to do so. That is their craft and their pleasure, and TMitTB has made it possible for them to do their work. “We,” he finally says, “are going to ship.”
Then will come reports. Revenue reports, analytics, lists of new markets to conquer, all manner of new customer data that will be yours to parcel out and distribute. That will be your role, as the owner of the global database of customer intent. Thousands, then millions, of new facts that can help the company plan its sales and product development cycles. A good thing. And, you hope, the new site will generate more revenue, being faster, better, API-driven, and deployed across platforms to Web, mobile Web, and multiple apps.
You decided to cut BlackBerry support. It stung, but there are three BlackBerrys in your desk drawer at home and none in your pocket. Life moves on.
You can feel it, the S, off in the distance, coming toward you. It will arrive in due time, and you will stick it to the front of the VP in your title and all will be well. The coders all smile at you in the hall now that you’ve sat in on code reviews and feature discussions and stood quietly in the middle of standups. You know some of their names, even if you could do a better job of pronouncing them.
Perhaps you have a future in software after all.
Photographer: Corey Olsen for Bloomberg Businessweek
Paul Ford is a writer and programmer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a founding partner of Postlight, a company in New York City that builds Internet platforms and develops interactive products. He is writing a book of essays about Web pages that Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish in 2016. His article, “The Surprising Sophistication of Twitter,” appeared in the Nov. 7, 2013, issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. E-mail: email@example.com. Twitter: @ftrain. GitHub: ftrain.
DARPA ROBOT: David McNew/Reuters, HEARING: Kim Komenich/San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis, 3D GUN: Keith Beaty/Toronto Star/Getty Images, DYKSTRA: Ben Shneiderman, BACKUS: Courtesy IBM Archives, REINHARDT: Courtesy William Gottlieb/Library of Congress, HOPPER: AP Photo, INPUT-ENIAC: National Archives, PUNCH CARDS: Courtesy IBM Archives, CD: Fairfax Media/Getty Images, FLOPPY DISCS: W.Cody/Corbis, SOFTWARE CASSETTES: Courtesy Nico Kaiser/Wiki Commons, TECH CONFERENCES: ALAMY (1); BLOOMBERG (5); CORBIS (1); KIM KULISH (2); The Image Works (1)