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Programming

Where Are the Original PC Programmers Now? 124

Posted by kdawson
from the nobody-expects-the-internet dept.
Esther Schindler writes "In 1986, Susan Lammers did a series of interviews with 19 prominent programmers in a Microsoft Press book, Programmers at Work. These interviews give a unique view into the shared perceptions of accomplished programmers, the people who invented the tools you use today. In Programmers Who Defined The Technology Industry: Where Are They Now?, I tracked down the fate of these prominent developers — from Robert Carr (Framework) to Dan Bricklin (VisiCalc) to Toru Iwatani (author of Pac Man, I'm glad you asked). The article quotes the developers' 1986 views on programming, the business, and the future of computing. In two cases (Bricklin and Jonathan Sachs, author of Lotus 1-2-3) I spoke with them to learn if, and how, their views had changed. One meaty example: In 1986, Bill Gates said, on Microsoft's future: 'Even though there'll be more and more machines, our present thinking is that we won't have to increase the size of our development groups, because we'll simply be making programs that sell in larger quantities. We can get a very large amount of software revenue and still keep the company not dramatically larger than what we have today. That means we can know everybody and talk and share tools and maintain a high level of quality.' At the time, Microsoft had 160 programmers."
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Where Are the Original PC Programmers Now?

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  • So.... (Score:4, Funny)

    by Mitchell314 (1576581) on Friday October 22, 2010 @09:43AM (#33985152)
    ... 160 programmers is all you'll ever need?
    • Re:So.... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Friday October 22, 2010 @09:46AM (#33985182) Journal

      Well those were back in the 8 bit days when the database couldn't hold more than 256 employees at once. They had some wiggle room, but not much.

    • Re:So.... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Chrisq (894406) on Friday October 22, 2010 @09:47AM (#33985214)

      ... 160 programmers is all you'll ever need?

      I would be interested in a then/now of how many lawyers they have. That would really reflect the change in the IT industry.

      • by Kjella (173770)

        Developer/lawyer ratio over time... now that'd be an interesting graph.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by CAIMLAS (41445)

        As a proportion of their employee total, I'd suspect it's actually shrunk a bit. Microsoft wasn't exactly a litigation-free company back then.

      • Gates forgot to take into account two things:

        - Since 1986 computers have developed new tools that did not exist then (on PCs anyway), like Paint programs, music creation programs, web browsers, media players. That required hiring more programmers to develop those new tools.

        - Microsoft had been a small company serving IBM, Commodore, etc, but now they have to serve thousands of businesses and millions of consumers directly. That requires additional programmers to handle the extra grunt work ("No ma'am the

    • by Firethorn (177587)

      When I read the comment I thought something along the lines of 'perhaps a great man isn't one who's never wrong; but one who's willing to admit his mistakes and move on'. I'm probably stealing/paraphrasing a quote from somebody, but have no clue as to who.

      Bill Gates certainly wasn't 100% on predicting the future; but apparently he was willing to adapt when the world didn't follow his vision.

      • Re:So.... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by iluvcapra (782887) on Friday October 22, 2010 @12:13PM (#33987218)

        There's a very active debate on wether or not Microsoft at the present time, or throughout its growth after they finished NT has had simply way too many developers, and if its corporate culture hasn't suffered because of the bureaucratic overhead involved in keeping something like 30,000 programmers merely busy, let alone productive, creative, entrepreneurial and all that other awesome stuff you generally need cutting edge development to be. This is the view taken by Mini-Microsoft [blogspot.com] and others.

        Compare also the opinion of John Sculley [cultofmac.com] when he talked about the Mac unit when him and Jobs were still working together -- the whole division, hardware and software was only a hundred people or so, and only maybe a dozen were OS engineers, with another team of equivalent size writing the bundled applications. Apple presently has about 35,000 employees, but its been mentioned in sources that at least 2/3rds of them are in the retail side of the business, and for all of their OS and application development some people put their actual headcount in the mere hundreds.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      That's what he said. And he would have been right. If he hadn't had competitors who added features that threatened his sales.

      The more features you have, the more programmers you need. Especially when you have shitty strategies for integrating functions, reusing code, automating tests, and fixing bugs.

  • This guy sure does generalize.

    • by Dumnezeu (1673634)

      That was from IBM, not MS. Look it up, really!

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by gstoddart (321705)

        That was from IBM, not MS. Look it up, really!

        I can find Bill Gates denying [wikiquote.org] he said it. I can find someone saying they don't believe him [imranontech.com]. I can even find someone saying that the quote is likely apocryphal [itbusiness.ca].

        It doesn't seem like anybody is actually reliably attributed to this quote. So, either it's a meme that's stuck, or Bill Gates is lying, or it's mis-attributed and nobody knows who said it.

        Anybody got something more definitive?

        • Anybody got something more definitive?

          No programmer would ever, in the history of computing, say any amount of resources is enough?

        • by chthon (580889)

          I definitely remember this quote from the beginning of the eighties in the Dutch version of the magazine Elektor/Elektuur.

          No electronic hobbyists here who have old archives?

        • by theaveng (1243528)

          Could also be that someone DID say it, but not those exact words.

          It's often repeated that nobody said, "Play it again Sam," but if you watch the movie there's a quote very similar to that (Play it Sam.). At some point someone, somewhere decided 640K would be enough to run MS-DOS apps and because Bill Gates was the boss, it was probably him. After all the original IBM PC only had 16k, so Gates probably figured ~40 times that amount was plenty.

    • by indeciso (1350357)
      You mean 640K programmers? :P
  • by cindyann (1916572)

    "We can get a very large amount of software revenue and still keep the company not dramatically larger"

    Translation: more money for me.

    • Isn't that kinda how businesses work? Try to make more revenue without wasting?

      To a certain extent, of course... but isn't that just trying to be efficient? Maximum sales, least amount of work?

      I mean, there are other things too, like developing good products, having good developers, etc. But I find it hard to fault a business owner for wanting to expand sales and not have to expand the company by an equal amount... that would mean his profit isn't going to go up much.

  • by mcgrew (92797) * on Friday October 22, 2010 @09:48AM (#33985218) Homepage Journal

    PCs are little different than then the big iron when computers were new. I'd say that people like Grace Hopper who wrote the first compiler, Von Neumann who came up with the archetecture, John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, etc. were the real pioneers.

    • by arth1 (260657) on Friday October 22, 2010 @10:20AM (#33985488) Homepage Journal

      In defense of TFA, it is called "Programmers who Defined the Technology Industry", following up on the book "Programmers at Work" which was about Microsoft programmers.

      Listing who the real computer pioneers were is a bit like replying to a post about singers by stating that Robert Moog and J.S. Bach were music pioneers.

      • by plcurechax (247883) on Friday October 22, 2010 @02:26PM (#33989224) Homepage

        following up on the book "Programmers at Work" which was about Microsoft programmers.

        No, many of them never worked for Microsoft. The book was published by Microsoft Press as I remember.

        Though most if not all were microcomputer (i.e. Personal Computer aka PC) programmers. That's were the revolution was happening. Mini and mainframes had been around for a while by that time in computing's history.

        • Gary Kildall
        • Andy Hertzfeld
        • Jef Raskin
        • Toru Iwatani
        • C. Wayne Ratliff
        • Dan Bricklin
        • Scott Kim
        • ...

        All of these programmers never worked at Microsoft, and neither did I.

  • Back in the days (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Drakkenmensch (1255800) on Friday October 22, 2010 @09:48AM (#33985226)
    Everyone from my parents to job counselors kept telling me that learning programming and computers was a dead end because it was both a fad and a saturated market. IBM already had all the programmers they would ever need, who would hire more?
    • by tokul (682258)

      IBM already had all the programmers they would ever need, who would hire more?

      We all die sooner or later.

    • by AnonymousClown (1788472) on Friday October 22, 2010 @10:24AM (#33985534)

      Everyone from my parents to job counselors kept telling me that learning programming and computers was a dead end because it was both a fad and a saturated market. IBM already had all the programmers they would ever need, who would hire more?

      Then, you went into programming. Life was good ... but you start noticing that more and more programming jobs start going overseas. But you don't worry, they're just doing the maintenance and boiler plate code. You, after all, are doing the intense design and algorithms. Life is still good - your pay just keeps going up and up!

      Then one day, you're asked to train a young man from an Asian country about your code. You answer questions like, "What does an asterisk by a variable mean?", "What's this arrow mean?" and "What's a pointer?" and other questions that make you wonder if this person is even qualified to be doing what they hired him for.

      You think nothing of it because you have skills and you are always willing to learn and adjust - you'll be employable for ever!

      Time goes on and you're getting closer to 40. You start doing more documentation type of things because the coding is being done more and more with outsourcing companies.

      Then one day, they don't need you anymore and when you try to get more work, you hear nothing. Many, many, many resumes out - nothing. You get more education and training and still nothing. In the meantime, you see posts on places like Slashdot saying that they are having a hard time getting qualified people. Resisting the urge to flame the poster, you walk away from your computer mumbling, "Bullshit. Bullshit.Bullshit. Bullshit. ..."

      You then see that some "loser" you knew years ago went into management and is still employed and you think "Why oh why did I insist on staying technical!?!"

      • Mod parent up.

        This has happened to so many people its ridiculous. Its actually gone to the point where Governments should start writing extra tariff and tax laws into moving positions overseas for work that needs to be done in-country.

        That said, I do have a hard time finding qualified people but thats more a factor of geography than any real limiter. No one wants to move here, haha.

    • by Vreejack (68778)

      I remember my father being really disappointed that I was studying dead-end stuff like programming back in 1982

      • by SuperQ (431) *

        I had a similar experience when I wanted to know more about UNIX systems. The funny thing is he continues to be a MS fanboy. This is slightly understandable since he works in business software systems.

        I wonder if he still thinks snowboarding is a fad.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by CAIMLAS (41445)

      Yeah, what a perception change, eh?

      As someone who works in IT today, I'm tempted to tell my children the same thing - that programming and computers is a dead end - but for different reasons. Today, it's that the job competition is so stiff, and the pay is not commensurate with the responsibility, experience, knowledge and stress.

      On the other hand, what else is there for a technically inclined youth? Electrician?

      • by Firethorn (177587)

        On the other hand, what else is there for a technically inclined youth? Electrician?

        A good electrician has the advantages that most of his work can't be outsourced, he's always needed, and perhaps due to our 'COLLEGE COLLEGE COLLEGE' cry, a good electrician can make comperable wages to many with college degrees, and that's only working a 40 hour week, no overtime. Add in some and the effective pay goes way up.

        Then add in that an electrician gets a good amount of exercise and movement just doing his job and he might even be healthier than a college degreed desk jockey, and that's without h

      • by jmizrahi (1409493)
        Are you seriously suggesting that you can think of no other technical field besides programmer and electrician? How about physicist? Chemist? Biologist? Engineer? And of course, within each of those fields are a thousand subfields...
      • by chthon (580889)

        Elektromechanics.

  • by PPH (736903) on Friday October 22, 2010 @09:50AM (#33985242)

    ... past Dec 31, 1999.

    • by Nadaka (224565)

      That is 2 weeks later than my graduation date with my first computer science degree... DOH!

      After a few years of manual labor, I went back and got another one... Just in time for the recession... DOH!

      Note: I did manage to ride this one out though, even if 2 out of 3 employers of mine have gone bankrupt in the last 3 years.

  • Agile (Score:5, Interesting)

    by digitaldc (879047) * on Friday October 22, 2010 @10:13AM (#33985420)
    "Most of these programmers had (and have) a programming methodology that today would be called Agile. They mostly created a prototype that worked, and kept adding functionality until it was ready to ship. They worked iteratively in small teams. And, as Bricklin's current thoughts indicate, these developers were always cognizant that at some point you have to quit adding to the software and send it out the door. I found myself wondering how many readers imagine that "Agile" is something new."

    Duke Nukem Forever, are you listening???
    The implementation of plaid shirts also seems to be a pre-requisite for effective programming.
    • by chvyzl1 (813550)
      "The implementation of plaid shirts also seems to be a pre-requisite for effective programming." - Thats hilarious :D
  • Good Old Day? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 22, 2010 @10:15AM (#33985454)

    I was hardware guy in a computer store in the mid 70's. Bill Gate was a guest speaker at 1 of the computer club meetings we hosted, It was in the early days of the Apple II and mostly we sold S-100 systems (Altair, Cromemco, Processor Technology...)
    Bill gates whined aboout making 3 dollars and hour on Altair Basic because everybody just passed around the paper tape. He tried to convince us that he thought that software should be bundled with the hardware. We booed him off the stage.

    I remember people coming in and asking to by a Visicalc computer, We always got a chuckle out of it when we had to explain they wanted an Apple .

    Mostly what we were interested in was getting a program by Ward Christensen called CBBS working. It ran in an Altair with a Cromemco ZPU board using an Intertec Superbrain terminal with a couple Wangco 8 inch floppys and 48 K of Thinker Toys memory. This 1 Toy bar far had more effect on the world than anything else I remember. Ward was in Chicago and We had a guy named Kieth Peterson with us

    You would have to use a program Ward made called Xmodem with a modem and dial up the store.

    Now get off my lawn!

    • Ah man. I loved the Intertec... One of the most useful machines of that era... Except that when it locked up, you had to remember to remove the floppies from the drive before you rebooted, or else you destroyed the boot block. For it's time, it was a very fast system, and the screen was better than most.

    • Re:Good Old Day? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by abigor (540274) on Friday October 22, 2010 @12:00PM (#33987016)

      Why the heck don't people like you post more often? I love hearing this stuff.

      • by blair1q (305137)

        Most of them are dead or living in Scottish castles or on private islands. /. is for people who use keyboards.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by evilviper (135110)

        Why the heck don't people like you post more often? I love hearing this stuff.

        In the past 2-3 years, there has been an absolute flood of new blood into /., which was either caused by, or resulted in the shift away from realy technical stories, and into more flambait political stories. The moderation system, as well, seems to have been overwhelmed by this flood, and an inordinant number of good comments get lost in the noise, while loud and ignorant me-too comments get all the points. And sadly, the editors here not only aren't trying to change things for the better, but seem to rev

    • by mattack2 (1165421)

      Bill gates whined aboout making 3 dollars and hour on Altair Basic because everybody just passed around the paper tape.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Letter_to_Hobbyists [wikipedia.org]

  • Anyone ever look in "bbs the documentary" Not exactly PC programming, but very informative. Atari, Apple II, Commodore 64 and others; great DVD.
  • by fermion (181285) on Friday October 22, 2010 @10:34AM (#33985650) Homepage Journal
    From the books that the MS people published, it is clear that they theoretically knew how to write code. That they could get functional operating systems and applications programs out the door indicated that they could manage large projects.

    I remember reading books like Solid Code and understanding how to put together a program, not just write functions that would compile. MS Press filled the time between the old time books like Composite Structured Design and the Mythical Man Month and more contemporary books like the Pragmatic Programmer. What I saw, however, was that MS was not moving forward with modern techniques and design patterns. At least from the outside, it appeared that they were stuck in the 80's.

    Nevertheless, one cold do worse than reading these books as a basis in programming, not just coding.

  • My grandfather... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rAiNsT0rm (877553) on Friday October 22, 2010 @10:34AM (#33985652) Homepage

    Pretty cool story: My grandfather worked in tool and die for PPG (back then it still stood for, Pittsburgh Plate Glass) and they had a super rudimentary "CNC machine" that used punch cards for coordinates in straight lines only. He had zero knowledge of computers but he did figure out how, within the limitations, he could plot enough points to create arcs and essentially circles. It was a huge improvement that teams of "programmers" had been working on unsuccessfully. He never even mentioned it to anyone until I was in college going for a CS degree and I was floored, he figured no one would understand or care since it seemed trivial.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Back in my day, which was still much later than the true pioneers, we worked real close to the machine... Want to put a character on the screen? Hell, it was simple.. Tell the character drawing routine the row and column and the 7-bit character code and easy as JSR, that character would appear on the screen. Want to do some animation? Heck, super easy. Shim the address of the character ROM tables with a RAM address then reload the characters bit by ragged bit... Color was simple and just a matter of setti

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by blair1q (305137)

      imagine what I could DO if my little brain could wrap itself around the complexity of this massive OS...

      Yeh. And then add in the several hundred parallel cores in your video card...

      I'm pretty good at wonky stuff and I just sort of stare at the computer sometimes wondering how to fill it up.

    • by TheLink (130905)

      Tell the character drawing routine the row and column and the 7-bit character code and easy as JSR, that character would appear on the screen.

      The Apple II was even simpler than that. You just wrote a byte in a memory address in the screen range (0x400-0x7ff was the default IIRC) and a character would appear on the screen.

      Want to do graphics? Similar thing, but you read or write to certain memory addresses to change the graphics mode, then you store bytes create blocks or pixels.

      It's because of Woz - most stuff was done in software to save on hardware. Sound, I/O (disk, tape, joystick/paddle).

    • Wow, that makes programming Ataris in BASIC seem like writing Python in comparison 8(

  • Peter Norton? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BetaRelease (110550) on Friday October 22, 2010 @11:22AM (#33986368)

    Where is Peter Norton? His Norton Utilities was the greatest set of utilities then -- especially Unerase!

    • Oh yes. I had those in my Windows 95B years, and even bought his book on Windows architecture. Those were the days.

    • Norton wasn't in the book. If I had started with my own list of "people who defined the microcomputer industry," I could have included a LOT of folks who had a major impact. It would have been a long list. Not just Peter Norton (who's a major art collector now, didja know that?) but also Philippe Kahn (who would have been fun to write about -- he went on to invent the camera phone and has continued to be fascinating... and also I'm still in touch with him so would have been able to do an interview relativ
  • Sure, he wasn't a PC programmer, but his work at Williams from the pinball to videogame eras were an inspiration!

  • Finally! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Call Me Black Cloud (616282) on Friday October 22, 2010 @11:39AM (#33986656)
    I always wondered what happened to Bill Gates!

    Wait, the article doesn't say anything about him but "duh". Nice bit of journalism, guys.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by blair1q (305137)

      He dropped out of college and now he goes around volunteering at food banks [twitter.com] and health clinics [twitter.com].

      • by rubycodez (864176)

        and promoting eugenics, by which he says we should get the population down to 1 million people. not to include his own relatives or offspring, of course.

        • by Chapter80 (926879)

          and promoting eugenics, by which he says we should get the population down to 1 million people. not to include his own relatives or offspring, of course.

          Without any references, I had to go find [youtube.com] some [associatedcontent.com] myself [theoneclickgroup.co.uk].

          I can't find anything that says what you are saying. I can find a lot of people pointing out that he's promoting eugenics, and citing a speech. But I didn't interpret the speech anything like your interpretation.

          For the record (you can watch the YouTube Propaganda link above, for his actual words), he said something like:

          First we got population. The world today has 6.8 billion people. That's headed up to about 9 billion. Now if we do a really great job

  • I wonder what happened to some of the guys who wrote articles in the magazines I devoured in my youth - David Ahl, founder of Creative Computing, or Jim Butterworth of The Transactor fame. I think JB is dead, actually.

    I was digging around at my parents' place and I found several years' worth of Transactors, most of them in good shape. I also have a copy of the Complete C64 Inner Space Anthology somewhere - I wonder what the eBay-ability of these things are.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Gramie2 (411713)

      Yes, I'm pretty sure Jim Butterworth died a few years ago. I know someone in the C64 scene (it still exists!) and he spent a fair amount of time with Jim attending C64 conferences.

      Yes, I prized my Transactor magazines and ISA. So much great information, presented cleanly and with a desire to share.

    • Don Lancaster has released a free PDF of his classic RTL Cookbook [tinaja.com]. No catch, you can just download it. (I learned about it from Jeff Duntemann, editor of PC Tech Journal, which you probably read too (and at whose feet I learned my craft); Jeff still blogs [contrapositivediary.com].)

      I'm not sure what happened to David Ahl, but it's likely that some of my friends are in touch. Wayne Rash might know.

      It's nice that you want to know. I tend to imagine that nobody cares about us old fart journalists.

  • I'm sitting on a nice warm beach watching the young ladies play beach volley ball.
  • I know the guy who designed the molds for the original IBM PC. He tells the tail of IBM suits coming to him to get the molds made. He asked them how many parts they planned to make off the mold. Their answer: 150,000. Ten copies of the mold later, IBM had farmed out the production work to ten different parts of the country to keep up with the demand.

  • I got the Programmers at Work book recently (picked it up in a second hand book sale). After reading the articles I looked up a few Wikipedia entries. John Page is not there at all. And PFS:FILE is mentioned only in passing in an entry on pfs:Write [sic] - in which Page is entirely absent.

Old programmers never die, they just branch to a new address.

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