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Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software Reprint Edition
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"Technology people like to call complicated problems 'nontrivial.' Scott Rosenberg has taken an extremely nontrivial topic and made it accessible. He plainly admires the people who create code, but shows them as the complex, flawed beings we all are- and how human talents, quirks and passions become part of what people create. Dreaming in Code is stellar reporting and writing."
–Dan Gillmor, Director, Center for Citizen Media and author of We the Media
"We live in a world increasingly governed by the near-invisible logic of software, and yet most of us know almost nothing about that hidden world inside our computers. Dreaming in Code is a fascinating and sobering exploration of how the challenges of programming both inspire and undermine our human drive to create new tools. Beautifully written, it's a book for anyone interested in the roots of creativity and innovation, for coders and non-coders alike."
–Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You and Emergence
"The great software genius Bill Joy likes to say that writing software is like building a cathedral: It's art, science, architecture, and manual labor all rolled into one. Dreaming in Code illuminates the truth of that metaphor in all its subtlety and fullness. It has drama, comedy, pathos, and poignancy- and its center, in Mitch Kapor, is one of the most fascinating and yet least understood figures of the digital revolution. It's also so smart and insightful on its subject as any book I know."
–John Heilemann, New York Magazine columnist and author of Pride Before The Fall: Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era
"Dreaming in Code is the first true successor to Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine, and is written with a combination of technical sophistication and narrative skill not seen in many years. Read it to understand what all these software wizards actually do."
–James Fallos, The Atlantic
"Dreaming in Code bravely goes where no nonprogrammer has dared to go before: into the whirlwind where human imagination struggles to become code. Scott Rosenberg brilliantly interweaves the story of a start-up software company with the history of our (endless) attempts to rationalize the process of programming. He brings the reader close to the programmers: to root for them, then worry for them, as their project begins falling into all the old traps. Yet Rosenberg's admiration for the visionaries and coders shines through, until one almost believes they will one day succeed at creating their own 'Key To All Mythologies,' their repository of all things digital. Most people do not understand what goes into the creation of computer software, but now they will."
–Ellen Ullman, author of Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Scott Rosenberg is a writer and editor who started making web pages in 1994 as an editor of the San Francisco Free Press and as a co-founder of Salon in 1995, where he was both a technology and managing editor. He began blogging in 2002, and is currently a contributor to Backchannel, Steven Levy’s technology-focused publication. His book, Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters, tells the story of blogging. His follow-up, Dreaming in Code, discusses software development and its discontents.
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For me, the book about the software project was the most interesting. The project is called Chandler done by a company called Open Source Applications Foundation (OSAF) by Mitch Kapor (the founder of Lotus). It's vision is to develop the next generation personal information manager (PIM), which is basically a calendar, email and note-maker integrated in one product. Chandler had a large investment and attracted some high-profile developers. Scott Rosenberg followed the Chandler project over a couple of years and the book describes his observations or narrative of the project.
The Chandler project is fascinating as they aim to do things different... and end up making all the mistakes of traditional software projects. They want to get something out quickly and facilitate an open source community to build up the product. They end-up over-designing, late delivering and over-complicating the whole project. It is really painful to follow the project (at least for me) as I could see them make the mistakes and would want to say "nooo!" but they did it anyways. Eventually the book ends without knowing the end of Chandler, but if you search online you'll discover that it unfortunately never delivered its vision.
The second book is the authors search for delivering better software. He basically picks a theme and describes that and explains some of the history. For example, at some point it explains what open source is and how open source was created. Similarly, it explains lots of aspects of software development. Most of these ought to be nothing new for nearly any software developer... and it suggests the book is actually targeted to people who aren't directly involved in software development but are curious about how it would work. The explorations were interesting but purposefully shallow, which made them a bit boring for me. Usually I ended up reading through them and wanting to go back to the Chandler project story to know what would happen there.
All in all, the book was well written. I enjoyed the Chandler parts a lot (4 stars) and felt the explorations were just ok (3 stars). I decided to average it out to 3 stars, especially for software developers who probably know all the explorations already. 4 stars for people who are interested in discovering more about software development. A pretty ok book.
There are two distinct matters to be discussed here: 1) the principle story of the book, and 2) how the subject matter is delivered.
The principle story of the book is Chandler, a Personal Information Manager(PIM)/Groupware-type software that was conceived and developed as an open-source project. The project was abandoned after several years' effort without having achieved its defining goals, and Dreaming is a narrative of the first few years.
The blame for the failure must be place squarely at feet of the project's founder and chief evangelist, Mitch Kapor. Mr. Kapor was the heroic developer of Lotus 1-2-3. For the growing number of you who have no idea what that was, it was the one app that made a PC worth having in the late 80s. It was the killer app for a long time.
Chandler was meant to be Kapor's extension of a PIM product that had once shown some promise at Lotus. He had the lofty idea of making this system capable of tying together all of the elements of PIM practice (calendar, task list, email, notes) into a seamless, ephemeral whole, without storage dictated by data type, and by the way, open source. Get it? Well, nobody else did either.
This project failed because its goal could not and cannot be articulated in a short sentence. It was consistently defined by its desired attributes, without the faintest idea of how it could be achieved. In fact, when examined more closely the defining attributes seemed to be in direct contradiction to each other.
If you will forgive me, the situation reminded me a lot of the health care bill of 2010. It was just forever before there ever was a bill. For at least two years, it existed as list of lofty attributes. For the few brief moments between the time it actually became a bill and the time it was passed into law, the Speaker of the House famously noted that we have to pass it to see what's in it. But when it was finally dissected, it contained a number of conflicting requirements that could not live together successfully.
And so it was with Chandler. I marvel at the fact that in the august collection of software professionals, no one at any point pitched a fit that the project had no clearly articulated mission, that they had not a clear image of what they were building, and how such building would occur. I presume it is because that in this particular open-source project, the developers were getting paid.
The open source idea was intended to harness the executional capacity of the masses, but again, the project was too ethereal for the masses to work on. There was no unifying mantra, such as "Write a free Unix!" or "Replace IIS!", for the masses to recite in unison. A candidate cry might have been "Replace Outlook!", but Chandler was meant to be so much *more* than Outlook. Unfortunately, "Transcend Outlook!" just never caught on. So Kapor paid a number of available systems development heavy hitters to develop the open-source project. Most of them moved along to other pastures once they saw that the emperor was in fact naked.
And all of that is pity, but again, the greater pity is that the disaster could not have been averted by a well-placed person pulling the emergency brake. In my experience in software development, you have a problem on your hands if your programmers start out by designing the splash screen. Similarly, that the software was named after the dog, the dog after the author, and the releases after the setting of the author's stories just makes me want to puke. Perhaps we could get the cart and the horse in the right order.
A number of reviewers of this book have noted that the book is just as unfocused and wandering as the software project, and that is true. It isn't entirely clear to me how it could have been otherwise, and moreover, it does not render the book unuseful. The father Berenstein Bear made an industry of showing the little tyke bear what not to do. Well, same here. Plus, the wandering captures the spirit of the endeavor.
What I do not sufficiently hear in the review-o-sphere is the dramatic turn the book makes at chapter 9, into the history of software development methodologies and personalities. For 75 pages (a bit less than a quarter of the book), we get a fine tour of software craftsmanship over the decades. Along the way, every major title in software development (and not a few minor ones) is cataloged and discussed. This discussion and the attendant bibliography is easily worth the price of the book (and maybe worth the cost of reading the other 75% of the book),
One issue the author had was when to stop the book, as the software never came to any cohesive point. So it just stopped, just like the software project did a couple of years later.
I think the title was a poor choice. It has nothing whatever to do with the book except a tangential reference, and a great opportunity to say something conclusive about the project was lost. I suppose that the jury had not yet completely returned on the project when the book went to press, however, "The Road to Nowhere: Hazards of Following the Pied Piper" or "Good Money After Bad: How and Idea, a Bucket of Money, and a Dynamic Personality Weren't Enough," would have been a lot more on point.
Learning about Kapor, who founded Lotus Development Corporation and designed the wildly popular spreadsheet software, Lotus 1-2-3, was in itself enough to make this book a worthwhile read for me. Nevertheless, "Dreaming in Code" fails in its major objective. The faults of the Chandler project - chiefly, "paralysis by analysis" - should have been glaringly obvious from the start, in 2001. It is little surprise that a project will be late or worse when it lacks a clear objective. What is atypical about Chandler is that it took so long to peter out. Its failure is a reminder that having a sugar daddy and no deadlines is more a prescription for failure than success.
Rosenberg monitored the work on Chandler for three years before he called it quits and wrote his book. Since then, Mitch Kapor has left the project, and withdrew funding in 2008. Chandler is available for download, but shows no sign of being the world-changing software tool that it was hoped to be.