"You are so young; you stand before beginnings. I would like to beg of you,
dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in foreign languages. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. At present you need to live the question."
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I learned programming in high school from a Fortran IV manual, which was like learning how to drive a car from the owner's manual—unexciting. Later, after taking an operating systems course at MIT, I gave up entirely on programming as a profession. I did not want to spend my life doing the same thing over and over again.
What made me change my mind and become a professional programmer? In large part it was Gerald M. Weinberg's The Psychology of Computer Programming, which I first read in 1982. Weinberg not only demonstrated that programming was more than technology, it is a social activity, but he showed how the social element related to the technical. In essence, he identified and addressed the types of fundamental questions that Rilke advised the young poet Franz Kappus to study. Such as:
- “What does it mean when we say a program is good?” I learned from Weinberg that a good program is as much a matter of cultural fit as technological merit. A designer has to understand that tradeoffs are made not only among technical factors, but among technical, social and economic constraints. Too often, I have seen engineers try to build the “perfect” product while ignoring ease of use or budget constraints.
- “How do you get programmers to work together as a team?” One programmer cannot do it all. Different people have different skills, different skills are needed at different parts of the project.
- “What is leadership all about?” How do you manage change and performance? Why do many managers manipulate programmers and tread them poorly and then wonder why they get poor results?
- “How do you find good programmers?” And just what does it mean to be a good programmer? Weinberg was one of the first to point out the stupidity of aptitude testing for programmers, and the importance of understanding individual psychology in dealing with programmers.
Weinberg confirmed my own intuition that software could have an enormous impact on society, and his discussion of programming as a social activity helped explain much of the “strange behavior” I saw around me as I began working on my first programs. For example, during one of my first projects, I saw that the inability of certain people to work together had more impact on the project’s outcome than the technological issues being debated.
Weinberg examined what a naïve programmer would consider just technical topics and demonstrated how the elements of human personality and interactions between people had just as much, if not more influence over the outcome of a computer programming project than the technical issues and debates.
By understanding the importance of questions such as these, even if not every question can be answered in every situation, my value as a programmer and designer transcends whatever today’s technology du jour happens to be. I would have to say that Weinberg’s book took years off my apprenticeship, and saved me much aggravation.
To this day, I view programming primarily as a human activity, with the technical merits secondary. This does not mean you can ignore the technical merits. What makes a programmer really great is not technical genius, but an understanding of the human context of what he or she is doing. Any programmer who creates a truly revolutionary and world-changing program understands this. Others did not, or did not care to, and their contributions are hidden behind or overwhelmed by others’ accomplishments.
It is incredible that a twenty-five year old programming text containing examples illustrated with technologies that many programmers today cannot even conceive of—I recently taught a programming class where not one of the students had any idea what a punched card or paper tape was—is still a great book.