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83 of 83 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and Inspiring
If you are a person who cares at all about the art, craft, or science of software development, you will not be able to put this book down.

Seibel (a hacker-turned-writer himself) talked to some big names in our field. Topics covered include: How do you learn to be a programmer? How do you perfect your skills? How important is formal education? Which...
Published on September 16, 2009 by Brian Carper

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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting if you're interested
As advertised, this is nothing more or less than a book full of interviews with accomplished programmers and computer scientists, interviews conducted by someone who is also a thoughtful and experienced programmer. The downside of the book is that it has absolutely horrible design: the text is ugly, the paper is ugly, there are typos on almost every page, and that is...
Published on October 12, 2009 by D. Grady


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83 of 83 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and Inspiring, September 16, 2009
By 
This review is from: Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (Paperback)
If you are a person who cares at all about the art, craft, or science of software development, you will not be able to put this book down.

Seibel (a hacker-turned-writer himself) talked to some big names in our field. Topics covered include: How do you learn to be a programmer? How do you perfect your skills? How important is formal education? Which programming languages are good and which are terrible? What kinds of tools do great programmers use? (Which text editors? IDEs? Debuggers?) How do you reason about a program, bottom-up or top-down? What's the best way to collaborate with other coders? etc. etc.

As you might expect, the interviewees agree in some areas and wildly disagree in others, but there are insights aplenty. Some answers may surprise you, like how many of these coders shun formal debuggers and use mostly print statements, or how many of them shun IDEs for Emacs (or even pen-and-paper).

Aside from the broad questions, Seibel gets the interviewees to open up about what it was like to work on the projects they are famous for. These stories are engaging and entertaining. Any coder who has stayed up till 4AM squashing bugs will find kindred spirits in these books. And the stories are somehow inspiring, as you realize that even great programmers suffer through the same frustrations and ups and downs that all of the rest of us go through.

Those interviewed also share insights into what they think of our modern world of programming. Most agree that we live in complicated and troubled times as we battle layer upon layer of software complexity. This book has lessons to be learned from the very brief history of our field, and advice for the future ("Keep it simple!").

This book is deliciously buzzword-free and the programmers interviewed give their honest (sometimes brutally honest) opinions about what they love and what they hate.

The author and all of those interviewed share a passion for programming and it's hard not to be swept up into it. Very good book.
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60 of 63 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars By programmers, for programmers, September 18, 2009
By 
This review is from: Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (Paperback)
As a book, Coders at Work is in some ways not all that great. As a collection of the thoughts and opinions of a wide range of real programmers on what, how, and why they do what they do, it is a treasure.

I have to say that the first thing I noticed about the book was the cheap binding. The paper and print quality are not very good, I can't say I liked the basic typesetting or sans serif typeface very much, and I found quite a few typos despite not being a person who looks for (or generally finds) typos in published material. The small Related Titles ad on the back cover is a bit annoying as well - that sort of thing used to be tucked away in the front matter and restricted to a list of the author's other work. Ah well.

There is a short introduction describing the author's inspiration and a few themes he picked out after the interviews were completed, but not much else in the way of structure; the entire content of the book is the series of fifteen transcript style interviews, prefaced by short introductions. Many of the same questions are asked of each interviewee, which is nice for comparing their answers, but I got the impression that Seibel was pushing some people harder on certain issues: Ken Thompson on the wisdom of pointers for example, or Fran Allen on why it's really necessary to have more women in computer science, or Don Knuth on why it's important to pry open black boxes. It felt a bit like prefigured puzzlement in the face of programmers who hold on to ideas that go against what passes for conventional wisdom nowadays, and I would have preferred a more thoughtful and after the fact summary of what the author thought these less common ideas might have to contribute to the mainstream.

But analysis is not what this book is about, and that may be a good thing. As a programmer himself, the author is able to ask the questions that most programmers would probably ask without forcing the interviews to conform to a rigid agenda, and the result is six hundred pages of consistently fascinating material. What impressed me most was the sheer range of approaches and motivations on display: everything from Jamie Zawinski's largely unschooled route to a formidable level of skill and subsequent major contributions to influential projects, to to Peter Norvig's uncommon combination of practical hacker wizardry with an almost ethereally playful interest in a variety of higher level topics, to Fran Allen's old school appreciation of quality systems and frustration at the amount of regression and small-concept thinking in the current state of the art, to Dan Ingalls' desire to make his software as flexible and alive as possible. If you think you know what the programming world looks like, this book will show you that not even the giants really grasp the sheer diverse extent of it.

Interestingly, nearly everyone interviewed expressed dissatisfaction with the inflexibility, complexity, low quality, and sheer size of the modern software edifice, and those who had burnt out or who expressed interest in quitting programming were the youngest and closest to the mainstream. Sobering observation, or artifact of the interview selection process? Read and decide for yourself.

I'm a programmer who's read a lot of stuff about programming, including a lot of material by and about some the people in these interviews, and I could barely put the book down. If you're anything like me, you should get a lot out of this book.
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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Better than expected, September 16, 2009
By 
Luke John Crook (Los Angeles, California) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (Paperback)
Imagine a really good episode of "60 Minutes" dedicated to each programmer in this book. Well, this book is better.

The first questions asked of each interviewee serve to set the stage; "How did you get into programming". The detailed answers given allow the reader to relate to the interviewee as an individual. Did they fall into programming by accident as part of their existing job? Did they train to be a programmer? Did they start on a Lisp machine or an Atari 800?

From this initial introduction the author begins to dig deeper. These questions are not formulaic. The author does not rattle off the same 40 questions to each subject but has a deep understanding of the domain. Questions demand answers to problems or serve to highlight issues that the interviewee presents.

Ran into a problem? Was it a language problem? A design problem? A management or coworker problem? What issues lead up to the problem? Could anything have been done differently? Questions are asked on working conditions, languages, approaches to problem solving, influences from upper management, influences from other programmers, burn out, love for programming (do they still like it).

In the first interview in the book with Jamie Zawinski; we know his approach to software design, his approach to programming (top down/bottom up) his feelings on over-engineering, crunch-time, refactoring, how he knows when he is in over his head, his philosophy to coding in general "At the end of the day, ship the **** thing... You are not here to write code, you are here to ship products."

This is not a "Coders at work for Dummies". There is no appendix tallying up how many of the interviewee's prefer waterfall to agile, functional to imperative and there shouldn't be. Each interview requires thought and reflection from the reader.

I read until 3:30 am and then wrote this review. This is a good book.
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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting if you're interested, October 12, 2009
By 
D. Grady (Oak Ridge, TN) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (Paperback)
As advertised, this is nothing more or less than a book full of interviews with accomplished programmers and computer scientists, interviews conducted by someone who is also a thoughtful and experienced programmer. The downside of the book is that it has absolutely horrible design: the text is ugly, the paper is ugly, there are typos on almost every page, and that is really irritating. There is also nothing here to draw you in to the material if you aren't already interested, but if you're thinking about buying a book of conversations with computer programmers that's probably not an issue.

The upside is that the interviews are often really fascinating. Siebel does a good job; he has a set of stock questions that everyone gets asked, and seeing how different people respond to them is great, but he also does a good job of getting the interviewees talking about things they think are interesting and just letting them talk. Contrasting how different people tackle problems, listening to what these folks think are the big issues in programming today and seeing common threads; there's a lot of good stuff. It's worth reading. I'm giving it three stars because I don't think it's a book that will be worth reading a second time, and because it's so sloppily put together.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Coders at Work: A Review, September 16, 2009
This review is from: Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (Paperback)
I wrote this originally on my web site, http:[...], but am reposting here as well:

About a year ago, I decided to ask a number of people what I should read, and what I should do to be a better programmer. Over the next year I spent a lot of time with these same people trying to learn how to be a better programmer. This book, Coders at Work, is one of those books which turns out to be one of the most helpful programmer-guides I've come across.

- Structure of the book:

At the start of each "chapter" (which is really an interview), there's a short description about who each individual is. From there the chapter continues with a basic "interview-style" format, where Peter asks a question, and the interviewee answers it. Usually there's a followup question to clarify the previous answer - which has both the positive and negative effects to say "Person A answered this way, person B answered this way" - so in other words, at times it's hard to say, for example, how Zanwinski's answer differed from Peyton's.

The first question asked is one very crucial for most people, though, which is more or less, "How did you get into this?"

- Topics Covered:

The topics covered is not specific to only coding - some of the topics include:

- How did one get into coding?
- What were some successful projects?
- What were some less-successful/failure projects and why?
- What type of education is useful (e.g. is a PhD useful?)
- What tools does one use and why?
- What does one enjoy about programming?
- How one works with others and the dynamic of that.

This book is *not* only about coding though! That's an important thing to recognize about this book - it's leaned a bit toward programmers in general, but these topics help to make a better programmer in general - not simply specific to just coding better.

Some of the topics discussed feels a little dated, with some technology that's being discussed well before I was born, but since many of these challenges exist as timeless and I see in my everyday life, they are still valuable to hear about.

- Likes:

The main thing I enjoyed about this book was the fact that it's extremely applicable to what I see each day. A perfect example was the very first chapter in talking with Zanwinski. In this chapter, he discusses the concept of "Worse is Better", and how the strive for perfection caused a company to fail. This very concept rings extremely clear to me, in I've seen a system that was developed in the "Worse is Better" philosophy, and the development of the current system has seen times where the "Right Way" caused huge delays in the development of the system. It was a breath of fresh air to hear someone else discuss a situation that was really close to one that I've been, and in some ways continue to be, in. This is the main thing that I feel I enjoyed about the book itself.

Another applicable thing I read was the reasons for getting a PhD - which I've been contemplating for well over a year now. To hear perspectives about the reasoning to get or avoid one helps a lot in the contemplation.

Along with that, the topics were very interesting - and many of the answers were very clear and to the point. One can tell that these words were exactly the way the person said it - and not edited. This is a great feature because it feels more like a dialog than just a story-telling session.

- Dislikes:

There are a few areas of the book that I feel could have been done a bit better.
- When describing more old technology (e.g. the computer that Peyton learned on), I felt I had no clue what this device looked like or anything. A quick google can help in a lot of these situations, but there's a certain disconnect from the book itself as one's reading. This can happen especially for younger developers who haven't heard of some of this technology.
- The rants on some of the languages (e.g. Perl) can be taken poorly by some. I found it kinda funny, and it's clear that it's the individual's opinion, but I can see some people being annoyed by that. There's not a lot that can be done about this besides cutting out content.
- Better identifying similar crucial questions that are asked to each individual would be helpful to hear the ideals that are different between each person. Those, with a special icon or something, would have been very helpful for comparing and contrasting differences.

- Summary:

Overall, I feel this book is quite good, a definite 4.5/5 stars. This book gives a "mentor feeling", when I honestly don't have a mentor at this point at my job. I found that many of the questions in this book provided insights into the difficulties I'm currently presented with, and offers suggestions on how to approach them. While this book will likely not be the totally definitive guide for all programming-related knowledge, it's definitely something I feel fits in a niche that currently isn't occupied by other books. I feel this will benefit all levels of programmers.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rare look at the culture that creates great code, September 21, 2009
This review is from: Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (Paperback)
There are three kinds of books about any technical subject. The first teach you the methods - how do you do X or Y - this are the Learn Z in 24 hours books. Second are the conventions books that teach best practices, lessons learned, etc. There are fewer of these because they can be applied in a variety of situations and they tend to be classics - SICP, the Cormen algorithms book, TAOCP, etc.

Coders at Work is a premier example of the third type, the books that teach you the culture of a subject. What drives the people that create the tools, inventions, and techniques that everyone else learns? The 15 long interviews with legends and legends-to-be of computing give a look into the minds that produced the world that coders live in today. This book could be read and reread, studied, analyzed, and cross referenced to mine out all of its great lessons.

I'd write more but I'm anxious to reread it.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Pleasure Reading...with insights, September 19, 2009
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This review is from: Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (Paperback)
*Spoiler*: The last bit of the last sentence of the last interview in this book is "don't only read the people who code like you."

At least one reviewer has complained that this title didn't "detail" how these programmers worked and how they approached programming. I must thoroughly disagree. The opinions of these people on common points of disagreement from type systems to tools and coding styles to debugging methods was explored. If you are hoping that you will be able to watch the subjects solve a complex problem or go through a typical day's work than you are in the wrong place. This isn't a screencast or a tutorial. On the other hand, there are a wide variety of opinions on display from experts in different areas of the field across different generations on numerous contentious issues.

This book is filled with words worth chewing on. On the first read, the interviews of Crockford, Deutsch, Eich, and Peyton-Jones stuck out to me in particular. In subsequent readings I expect that set to be different. All of the interviewees did agree on the importance of one thing, reading and writing code. For a beginner, this book is likely to point out some pitfalls that otherwise would've been missed and suggests valuable sources of intuition and insight. Perhaps most importantly, it may help popularize some knowledge of the history of our field. As Knuth laments, "The idea that people knew a thing or two in the '70s is strange to a lot of young programmers." There is some valuable distilled experience and wisdom here. At the very least, the book should help you hash over your own opinions on the issues discussed.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb book!, September 15, 2009
This review is from: Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (Paperback)
My familiarity with the folks being interviewed varied; some I knew well, some in passing and some I had never heard of -- like Bernie Cosell & Dan Ingalls. All the interviews were great to read, some of them were absolutely fascinating!

The thing I liked about the book were how these legendary programmers went about learning their craft, what attracted them to the field, lessons they learnt and their thought process. Some parts of the book reminded me of Tracy Kidder's The Soul Of A New Machine.

It was interesting to note the common things people agree on:
- Most folks don't like C++, some really hate it!
- Many of them are not happy with the available programming languages
- The importance of reading good code
- Second System Syndrome

Go ahead and buy the book. It's a great read, well worth your time & money.

Disclosure: I got to read the book before it was released. I put up a review of the book on my blog: [...]
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating interviews with 15 renowned software developers, April 15, 2010
By 
Erik Gfesser (Lombard, IL United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
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This review is from: Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (Paperback)
Despite the title, which uses the term "coder" to describe the software developer, this 600-page series of 15 interviews by Seibel is actually quite fascinating. In the words of the author, the questions he posed to these accomplished software developers are varied, revolving around "how they learned to do it, what they've discovered along the way, and what they think about its future". While these were some of the questions asked of all interviewees, like any good journalist Seibel used these as starter questions, going on unique tangents for each along the way. This reviewer noticed that several readers had expected some type of how-to guide by each individual interviewed, but the content here is composed of discussion points, as the subtitle suggests. If you enjoy interviews in the software space, such as those that one might regularly find on InfoQ, you will probably enjoy this collection.

Though weighty, there are numerous great sound bites throughout. Jamie Zawinski, "one of the prime movers behind [...], the organization that took the Netscape browser open source", is quoted as saying "I hope I don't sound like I'm saying, 'Testing is for chumps.' It's not. It's a matter of priorities. Are you trying to write good software or are you trying to be done by next week? You can't do both. One of the jokes we made at Netscape a lot was, 'We're absolutely 100 percent committed to quality. We're going to ship the highest-quality product we can on March 31st." Seibel poses the following question to Douglas Crockford, inventor of JSON: "In one of your talks you quoted Exodus 23:10 and 11: 'And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruits thereof: But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still' and suggested that every seventh sprint should be spent cleaning up code. What is the right time frame for that?" To which Crockford replies: "Six cycles - whatever the cycle is between when you ship something. If you're on a monthly delivery cycle then I think every half year you should skip a cycle and just spend time cleaning the code up."

Brendan Eich, creator of JavaScript, later comments: "Abstraction is powerful. What I'm really allergic to, and what I had a bad reaction to in the '90s, was all the CORBA, COM, DCOM, object-oriented nonsense. Every startup of the day had some crazy thing that would take 200,000 method calls to start up and print 'hello, world'. That's a travesty; you don't want to be a programmer associated with that sort of thing. At SGI, the kernel, of course, was where the real programmers with chest hair went, and there you couldn't screw around. Kernel malloc was a new thing; we still used fixed-sized tables, and we panicked when we filled them up. Staying close to the metal was my way of keeping honest and avoiding the bulls***, but now, you know, with time and better, faster hardware and an evolutionary winnowing process of good abstractions versus bad, I think people can operate above that level and not know assembly and still be good programmers and write tight code."

Joshua Bloch, Chief Java Architect at Google at the time this book was written, comments that "there's this problem, which is, programming is so much of an intellectual meritocracy and often these people are the smartest people in the organization; therefore they figure they should be allowed to make all the decisions. But merely the fact that they're the smartest people in the organization doesn't mean they should be making all the decisions, because intelligence is not a scalar quantity; it's a vector quantity. And if you lack empathy or emotional intelligence, then you shouldn't be designing APIs or GUIs or languages. What we're doing is an aesthetic pursuit. It involves craftsmanship as well as mathematics and it involves people skills and prose skills - all of these things that we don't necessarily think of as engineering but without which I don't think you'll ever be a really good engineer."

Summarized as the "mother" of Smalltalk (the counterpart to Alan Kay, the "father" of Smalltalk), Dan Ingalls comments that "people should learn to think clearly and to question. And to me it's very basic. If you grow up in a family where when the cupboard door doesn't close right, somebody opens it up and looks at the hinge and sees that a screw is loose and therefore it's hanging this way vs. if they say, 'Oh, the door doesn't work right; call somebody' - there's a difference there. To me you don't need any involvement with computers to have that experience of what you see isn't right, what do you do? Inquire. Look. And then if you see the problem, how do you fix it? To me it's so basic and human and comes so much from parent to child. Computers are certainly a medium for doing that. But they're just computers. There's a lot of that that will transfer, but to me it's really big and basic and human, so it's not like we're going to enlighten the world just by teaching them computers."
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get to know your heroes, September 18, 2009
This review is from: Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (Paperback)
I wanted to write a review earlier, but when I reopened the book to refresh my memory I couldn't put it down again.

I've always felt that the best way to improve as a programmer is to figure out whose work you admire the most and try to learn from them. Find out how they think, the tools they use, the ideas they consider crucial, and who they look up to themselves. Also find out the popular ideas they think are junk and the gurus they think are charlatans. There's a lot of day-to-day wisdom you usually can't pick up without actually spending time with somebody.

Coders at Work is great because it makes me feel like I've just spent a weekend with each of these illustrious people. I've been thoroughly entertained, found out what they're like and who I relate to, learned a lot of history, and taken a lot of practical inspiration. Now I want to write code - important code!
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Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming
Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming by Peter Seibel (Paperback - September 15, 2009)
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