Book Review: Coders at Work

At the outset let me just say that this is one book that every serious programmer must read at some point in their careers, preferably sooner rather than later. Coders at Work is a collection of interviews with 15 of the most brilliant programmers on the planet. You can find the full list of people and some excerpts on the book’s website. As a teaser, the book includes such names as Donald Knuth, Jamie Zawinski, Guy Steele, Brendan Eich and Ken Thompson. It’s a impressive list and what’s more each interview is very well conducted giving a deep insight into both the person’s general ideas on programming and their particular area of expertise.

The book is the brainchild of Peter Seibel, the author of the very well written Practical Common Lisp which I can safely recommend as a good starting point for people starting to learn Lisp. Seibel’s interviewing style is very effective, the questions are always short and to the point but they help guide the person in question into providing a lot of very interesting and useful information. They are also fairly open ended allowing the interviews to flow in interesting directions, unique to each person. He asks some general questions to all 15, things such as how they learned to program, what were their hardest problems or bugs, how they go about debugging and what their idea of the current state of programming is. But he also asks them things about their particular area of work. For example, with Jamie Zawinski he talks a lot about Netscape and Mozilla while with Donald Knuth the obvious topics are his masterpiece The Art of Computer Programming and literate programming. There are also some questions that you wouldn’t always think about, such as how to spot programming talent.

What makes the book very accessible is that it keeps technical jargon to a minimum. Anyone who has programming computers for a significant amount of time will have no problem in understanding most of the content. For areas that are more esoteric the programmers themselves provide very lucid explanations making it quite easy to follow along. A lot of the matter is about things that each programmer encounters: how to read someone elses code, how to debug programs, how to collaborate and pass on projects, how to improve as a programmer, what educational/personal qualifications are most helpful, etc. The book isn’t just about how awesome these people are: it’s about understanding how masters of the craft rose to that position and how us mere mortals might follow in their footsteps. Seibel does a pretty good job of asking the same question that many of us programmers would like to ask them if we had the chance.

Beyond the structure of the interviews, the book is made amazing by the stellar choice of programmers. Not only are they master programmers, they have very diverse experiences and interests resulting in lots of very interesting and powerful opinions. I particularly enjoyed Guy Steele’s interview which contains a fair amount of philosophy regarding programming and computer science and Fran Allen’s call for computing to become more socially relevant. At the same time, Zawinski and Thompson embodied what can be best described as the classic hacker mindset: coding for the pure joy of creation and problem solving. Many of the interviews are humorous in some way or the other and none of them degenerated into holy wars or religious diatribes.

There is absolutely no reason why you should not read this book. There are some areas for improvement, but these are of a presentational nature (I wish the interviews were broken in segments so that I didn’t have to read a full one at a sitting). Content wise there is nothing I have to say. Will this book help you become a master programmer? Well, not in any tangible, measurable sense. This book is not a howto or a handbook. Each person had their own ideas of how to do things and many of them disagree with what could be called ‘industry standards’ (in particular how code should be formatted or structured). What this book will do is give a window into the minds of some of the legends of our culture. I’ve found it most useful to compare what these people have done and how they think to what I do and think myself. Essentially, read the book the same way you would read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. You won’t learn how to become a great statesman, inventor or Founding Father of a nation, but you can figure out some ways to live a better, more impactful life.

Coders at Work tells the stories of people who might be very well be considered heroes of our times. If you have an interest in becoming a better programmer, go buy this book, read it cover to cover, think about everything they say about their programming practices and experiences and see how you can use that to make your own experience better. And above all else, remember and act on what you read.

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