Blake Snow

writer-for-hire, content guy, bestselling author

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Everyone who works with computers should read this (i.e. everyone should read this)


Credit: Business Week

I recently read Paul Ford’s special report on software—all 36,000 words and three hours of it. If you work in computers, you should read it. If you work in business, you should read it. If you’re an adult human, you will learn a lot about the way things are and where they’re headed by reading it.

Admittedly, the story could have benefitted from some additional editing. Ford, after all, veers a little off topic. But like Bill Bryson, Ford is a master at explaining why things matter—in this case, why coders matter, and how they will increasingly influence the future.

If that’s doesn’t convince you to read the article’s entirety, maybe my 10 favorite excerpts will: 

  1. The margins on nothing are great—until other people start selling even cheaper nothings or giving them away. Which is what happened, as free software-based systems such as Linux began to nibble, then devour, the server market, and free-to-use Web-based applications such as Google Apps began to serve as viable replacements for desktop software.
  2. It takes a good mathematician to be a computer scientist, but a middling one to be an effective programmer. Until you start dealing with millions of people on a network or you need to blur or sharpen a million photos quickly, you can just use the work of other people. When it gets real, break out the comp sci. When you’re doing anything a hundred trillion times, nanosecond delays add up. Systems slow down, users get cranky, money burns by the barrel.
  3. Programming, despite the hype and the self-serving fantasies of programmers the world over, isn’t the most intellectually demanding task imaginable… For not only are computers as dumb as a billion marbles, they’re also positively Stradivarian in their delicacy.
  4. Programmers are often angry because they’re often scared… they know their position is vulnerable. They get defensive when they hear someone suggest that Python is better than Ruby… At any moment some new thing could catch fire and disrupt the tribal ebb and flow… Is the next great wave swelling somewhere, and will it wash away Java, Python, PHP, or Javascript when it comes? Within 18 months your skills could be, if not quite valueless, suspect.
  5. Data management is the problem that programming is supposed to solve. But of course now that we have computers everywhere, we keep generating more data, which requires more programming, and so forth. It’s a hell of a problem with no end in sight. This is why people in technology make so much money. Not only do they sell infinitely reproducible nothings, but they sell so many of them that they actually have to come up with new categories of infinitely reproducible nothings just to handle what happened with the last batch. That’s how we ended up with “big data.”
  6. Programmers respect big systems—when they work. We respect the ambition of huge heavy machines running big blobs of code. We grew up reading about supercomputers. Big iron is cool, even if the future seems to be huge cloud platforms hosting with tons of cheap computers.
  7. Java was supposed to supplant C and run on smart jewelry. Now it runs application servers, hosts Lisplike languages, and is the core language of the Android operating system. It runs on billions of things. It won. C and C++, which it was designed to supplant, also won. A lot of things keep winning because computers keep getting more plentiful. It’s weird.
  8. But the choice of a main programming language is the most important signaling behavior that a technology company can engage in. Tell me that you program in Java, and I believe you to be either serious or boring. In Ruby, and you are interested in building things quickly. In Clojure, and I think you are smart but wonder if you ship. In Python, and I trust you implicitly. In PHP, and we sigh together. In C++ or C, and I nod humbly. In C#, and I smile and assume we have nothing in common. In Fortran, and I ask to see your security clearance. These languages contain entire civilizations.
  9. There’s simply no reason, aside from prejudice, to think that Mumbai or Seoul can’t make big, complex things as well as Palo Alto or Seattle.
  10. When I want to learn something and no software exists, the vacuum bugs me—why isn’t someone on this? This is what Silicon Valley must be thinking, too, as it optimizes the hell out of every industry it can, making software (and the keepers of that software) the middleman. The Valley has the world in its sights. Government, industry, social services, human sexuality, agriculture: They want to get in there and influence the whole shebang.