Coders At Work

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I recently finished reading Coders at Work, written by Peter Seibel (@peterseibel), and published by Apress. What an amazing book to read, I can’t even begin to express how much I actually enjoyed this book, and I know I am gushing, but this was a real treat for me.

I have always been amazed by the past of computing, the idea of computers as large as houses, filling entire warehouses for simple punch card technology, hell punch cards! I love hearing the stories of how things were, getting the first networks going, writing the first program for any technology, making something that everyone everywhere now uses and doesn’t think twice about why it works the way it works.

In Coders At Work Peter Seibel interviews some of the legends of technology including Peter Norvig (Director of Research at Google Inc.), Jamie Zawinkski (major Mozilla contributor, @jwz), and plenty more.

The book was written in the same tune as Writers at Work, and Founders at Work, to showcase the beginnings of coding, and to give an idea of how the world of coding as we know it has come to be.

There is no magic code revealed in the book, and there are no tutorials, just a bunch of old hackers explaining why they did what they did and how and what they learned from the experience.

As of this writing Apress hasn’t made available a sample chapter, which is too bad, it would be a great tease and only make you want more of this book.

To give you an idea of what you would be investing in, here is an excerpt from the first chapter of the book, where Peter is interviewing Jamie Zawinski an early Netscape/Mozilla developer. Peter has asked Zawinski about working with Peter Norvig at Berkely, here is his response:

Yeah. That was a very strange job. They had a whole bunch of grad students who’d been doing research on natural language understanding; they were basically linguists who did some programming. So they wanted someone to take these bits and pieces of code they’d left behind and integrate them into one thing that actually worked. That was incredibly difficult because I didn’t have the background to understand what in the world they were doing. So this would happen a lot: I’d be looking at something; I’d be completely stuck. I have no idea what this means, where do I go from here, what do I have to read to understand this. So I’d ask Peter. He’d be nice about it—he’d say, “It totally makes sense that you don’t understand that yet. I’ll sit down and explain it to you Tuesday.” So now I’ve got nothing to do. So I spent a lot of time working on windows system stuff and poking around with screen savers and just the kind of UI stuff that I’d been doing for fun before. After six or eight months of that it just felt like, wow, I’m really just wasting my time. I’m not doing anything for them, and I just felt like I was on vacation. There have been times when I was working really a lot when I’d look back at that and I’m like, “Why did you quit the vacation job? What is wrong with you? They were paying you to write screen savers!”
A good deal of the book is great history of how integrated the coding world really is, and you see a lot of the progression of technology through the book.

If you are the sort of person who enjoys sitting with the masters of your field, and listening to the stories and pondering what it would have been like to have to program everything in Assembly, or possibly in LISP, then you have to read Coders at Work, and then leave it in your reading room, and make sure others get a chance to read it as well.