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Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software Hardcover – January 16, 2007

3.9 out of 5 stars 101 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In the 80s, Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine attempted to define the story of the development of a minicomputer: from the new science to the business and nascent culture of electronic hardware and software that was characteristic of that time. Scott Rosenberg's Dreaming in Code draws on Kidder's model as it attempts to document the state of software, the Internet, and everything circa 2006 through the lens of Chandler, an as-yet-unfinished software application for the management of personal information.

The Chandler project--driven by Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development and main designer of its 1-2-3 spreadsheet, and later co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation--isn't the primary point of Dreaming in Code, though reading about software people and their social behavior is at least as interesting as reading about that of meerkats or monkeys. Rather, Chandler is a rhetorical device with which Rosenberg takes on the big questions: How do software development teams work (or not)? Why does the reuse of software modules rarely work altogether correctly? Does open-source development by volunteers on the Internet lead to innovation or just insanely bifurcated chaos? Chandler helps his readers think more clearly about all of these issues; however, "answers" to these questions are, of course, not to be had, which is one of his points.

The problem with books about technical subjects that aspire to appeal to a general audience, particularly computers and software, is that such subjects are so far outside the realm of familiarity of most people that the prose bogs down in analogy and metaphor. Rosenberg manages to avoid too much of that and deliver a readable account of software development and culture. --David Wall

From Publishers Weekly

Software is easy to make, except when you want it to do something new," Rosenberg observes—but the catch is that "the only software worth making is software that does something new." This two-tiered insight comes from years of observing a team led by Mitch Kapor (the creator of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet) in its efforts to create a "personal information manager" that can handle to-do lists as easily as events scheduling and address books. Rosenberg's fly-on-the-wall reporting deftly charts the course taken by Kapor's Open Source Applications Foundation, while acknowledging that every software programmer finds his or her own unique path to a brick wall in the development process. (The software is still in development even now.) With equal enthusiasm, Rosenberg digs into the history of the computer industry's efforts to make programming a more efficient process. Though there's a lot of technical information, it's presented in very accessible terms, primarily through the context of project management. Even readers whose computer expertise ends at retrieving their e-mail will be able to enjoy digressions into arcane subjects like object-oriented programming. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; First Edition edition (January 16, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400082463
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400082469
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (101 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #721,311 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
If you're in software development in any capacity, you'll find almost everything in this book is depressingly familiar: schedules dragging on endlessly, vague ideas standing for clear feature descriptions, and a remarkable lack of interest in learning from the past. You meet the indecisive manager, the frustrated designer, and the cowboy coder (the one who loses interest in things as soon as they finally work, determined to gut and rewrite thousands of lines of code for the sake of incremental "elegance").

"Dreaming in Code" really isn't a description of the act of programming, it's more about the difficulty of designing software with other people. It's not at all like designing, say, a new car, where real-world constraints (like the laws of physics and the behavior of materials) come into play. In software, nearly anything is possible. Unfortunately, or a "what comes out of that isn't usually the thrill of possibility, but the paralysis of choice. And that's what Rosenberg captures so well here: the endless, endless meetings discussing what *could* be done, how features *might* work, or what sorts of things "users" *might* want. And it is always that nebulous term "the user" here, the Chandler project never seems to bother thinking much about exactly who will use their product, under what circumstances.

It's not giving anything away to mention that the Chandler project doesn't end at the end of the book. Amazingly, the project is *still* grinding away after four years, releasing incremental versions of their calendar application (each loudly proclaiming that it's an "experimentally usable version"), even as they get passed by on a regular basis by new, fully-usable, web-based calendars like the one from Google.

It's not exactly a fun read--it is essentially a case study of a very long series of meetings--but it should be required reading for anyone involved in software development.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ansel Adams wrote, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept." And such is the case with the Chandler project. After four years of development, they have delivered only a 0.6 release with no general availability in sight.

In Dreaming in Code, author Scott Rosenberg follows a group of programmers tasked with creating a new product over a three-year stint. Along the way the book explores disciplines in development (and the lack of), the history of computing (particularly its truths and folklore), and explains why software engineering isn't a science but an art. A common misconception even among developers is that software is similar to construction when, as becomes clear in the book, developing software is more like cooking. Programming methodologies are as plentiful as cookbooks but both are limited by the realities of artistry. A chef can make miracles from a pantry full of ingredients; a cook cannot.

If you're involved with a development team as a marketer, there is much here that will illuminate your team's dysfunction. Rosenberg reintroduces us to concepts that have been known since The Mythical Man Month and The Soul of a New Machine but apparently not understood, remembered, or believed. Strongly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
Santa came through this year with a slightly advance copy of "Dreaming in Code", which tries to do for software engineering what "The Soul of a New Machine" did for computer engineering, following a single project through to its attempted conclusion. Software development is a story that's very rarely told, considering how dramatically software has changed all of our lives in the last 30 years. Author Scott Rosenberg does a good job of conveying the difficulties in software engineering, and the inevitable headaches and drama that come with incomplete plans and shifting specs (and they're always incomplete and shifting).

Where Rosenberg went wrong, unfortunately, is his choice of project to follow. Mitch Kapor's Chandler is quite atypical of software projects: it's driven entirely by one man's quixotic vision, and never has to encounter the usual give-and-take with VC's or upper management that help to clarify a plan. Kapor comes off as an untethered idealist (Al Gore makes the obligatory cameo at the office), and his project is afflicted by the same we-are-the-world unseriousness as his politics. Most notably, Kapor decides there should be no central repository for data (because, hey, down with authority and all that): instead, every item will just be represented, Napster-style, across users' personal computers. It's a costly decision that I don't think would have been made if it were more than just Kapor running the show.

Actually, I think the strongest part of the book is when Rosenberg abandons the project entirely in the middle section to delve into the history of the programming discipline, noting everyone from Donald Knuth to 37signals' Jason Fried. It's a useful, lucid introduction to the field that contains stories I hadn't seen before.
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Format: Hardcover
I have been following the Chandler project with interest from the beginning and have checked out most of the releases. Even to a distant observer,the glacial progress of the project, the lack of clarity about the objectives, and the mid-course changes that have reduced it to a pale shadow of the original vision, have been baffling.So, when I noticed Rosenberg's book, I immediately bought it and devoured it in a couple of hours. While the main focus of the book is on Chandler, the OSAF and the personalities there, it does talk quite a bit about the difficulties of software development, history of programming languages, methodologies etc quite a bit. I suspect the actual Chandler & OSAF content page wise might be only 50-60%. The book's general approach is like this - start out with something that the OSAF tried to do, then drift into a related topic from the history of software development; it alternates between discussions of the development of Chandler and various other topics. Very rarely does Scott Rosenberg actually examine why certain development efforts at OSAF failed in depth - he relies too much on failures of 'proprietary' software projects as a way of explaining the failures of the Chandler project. There is no open source context to the discussion most of the time - examining some aspect of software development of an open source project and drawing parallels from the failure of some proprietary software development effort is confusing. One of the most puzzling things about a lot of software doomsday scenario books is that, in spite of the fact that not all projects fail, they never try to figure out what made the successful ones work. Maybe nothing sells like a disaster. This book is no exception.Read more ›
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