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Comprehensive, yet not as good as "Founders at Work"
am 30. März 2010
Chances are you are planning on buying this book because you either read "Founders at Work" by Jessica Livingston or you have an interest in computer science and/or programming (or both, like me). You won't regret reading "Coders at Work" then, though it is less entertaining and diverse than the aforementioned "Founders at Work".
The first thing you have to do to is to ignore the title (if, like me, you associate "Coder" with some kiddie scripting lame flash websites in his spare time) and instead focus on the list of people interviewed for this book. For me these were "Jamie Zawinski", "Peter Norvig", "Ken Thompson" and of course "Donald Knuth" that I knew beforehand. The curiosity about how someone managed to get Don Knuth into a book which has "Coder" spelled on its front should suffice as a motivation to buy it ;)
The structure is very similar to "Founders": One chapter (i.e. interview) per person, 30-40 pages each, beginning with a short history of that persons achievements in the field. The interview consists of two intervowen parts: A list of standard questions Seibel asks each interviewee as well as some personal questions, which sometimes arise out of answers to previous questions. Some of the standard questions are about the kind of debugging technique people use, whether they have tried all kinds of different programming techniques (pair programming, extreme programming, literate programming), whether they have read Knuth and think that a formal math education is (still) necessary to be a good programmer. Sometimes the answer to these questions seems repetitive (everyone seems to use printf to debug and no one read Knuth cover to cover) and sometimes Seibel doesn't really realize that the answer to his next questions was already included in the previous answer. Since these questions were aimed at the really practical aspects of programming I missed questions about SCM (Source Code Management) being used in the process.
The more interesting and entertaining part of the interviews are about the career of each person, starting with their very first contact with programming. Another aspect that was very enlightening and entertaining about this book is how these people, most of whom have a vast amount of knowledge about compiler design, have differing opinions about C as a user-level programming language and how many of them talk extensively about Lisp, something I haven't concerned myself that much with even as a CS student. Seibel also asked how the future of programming should look like, especially in the light of some inherent security flaws in some languages and serious limitations in others. Though you might not always agree with the answers, they still make interesting points.
Ultimately it's an interesting and detailed book which does take some stamina to get through at some points. Luckily they put Knuth at the end, so there's your motivation again.