Bearded heroes and their all-night antics

Go To
October 11, 2002

The subtitle of this book is a better guide to its contents than its rather inelegant title. Go To is a hymn of praise to software and the people who develop software. Can a software developer be a super-hero? According to Steve Lohr, technology correspondent of the New York Times , software developers are the superheroes of the information age. They change the way we live.

In 11 chapters, Lohr recounts the history of some of the most significant software developments of the past five decades and of the moving spirits behind them. It is a tale of all-night coding sessions, fortunes won and lost and small bands of dedicated visionaries slaying the dragon of corporate complacency.

"In the beginning, there was Fortran," Jim Gray of Microsoft is quoted in the book; but, of course, there was not. There were octal numbers, various forms of machine code and, if you were lucky, an assembler that actually worked. Fortran was a giant conceptual leap. It allowed hundreds of thousands of people, who would not otherwise have done so, to harness the problem-solving power of the digital computer. To make this breakthrough, John Backus had to keep a team of eclectic talents working in harmony for the best part of seven years - often in the face of downright hostility from the organisation sponsoring his project. It is a fascinating story of challenges overcome.

In the beginning there was not MS/Word, either. That had to wait till software superstar Charles Simonyi had been recruited by arguably the biggest software superstar of them all, Bill Gates. At that time, 1981, Microsoft's income depended on Basic and MS/Dos. Simonyi's task was to develop applications. After spending a year on the ill-fated Multiplan spreadsheet, Simonyi re-engineered the Bravo word-processor that he had co-authored when at Xerox and the rest, as they say, is Wysiwyg. One of life's little ironies, for anyone who has cursed its Anglophone awkwardness when dealing with the Hungarian alphabet, is that Word's main progenitor was born and raised in Hungary - a fact I learnt from this entertaining and informative book.

You will not go to Go To for deep psychological characterisation, but if you are interested in the role of software in the modern world, you will find in it much to hold your attention. You will not go to it for super-heroines either. Here is a typical thumbnail sketch, of Ken Thompson (originator of Unix): "With his long salt-and-pepper beard, there was some truth in a colleague's comment that Thompson resembled a 'well-fed Rasputin'." Here is another, this time of James Gosling (originator of Java): "His appearance suggests an aging Viking warrior, though one dressed in t-shirt and jeans."

Towards the end I was getting fed up with this procession of brilliant bearded blokes, whose idea of a good night seemed to be debugging till dawn. Despite a discussion of whether Grace Hopper should be called the mother or grandmother of Cobol ("midwife", I would suggest), women get very little page space.

I have another cavil: the book has an unapologetic North American world view. Like Clark Kent (another newspaper reporter) Lohr is evidently a believer in the American way. Practically all the so-called superheroes live in the US and most were born there. A handful of Europeans gets into the picture, but no Asians. Considering that much of the best games software has a Japanese pedigree and also that Lohr was a foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Manila, this is a disappointing narrowness. Nevertheless, the book makes a refreshing change from all those boring textbooks on software engineering that omit the human context altogether.

Richard Forsyth is senior lecturer in computing, University of Luton.

Go To: Software Superheroes from Fortran to the Internet Age

Author - Steve Lohr
ISBN - 1 86197 243 1
Publisher - Profile Books
Price - £15.00
Pages - 248

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