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Where Are the Original PC Programmers Now? 124

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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  • Re:So.... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Friday October 22, 2010 @10:47AM (#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.

  • Agile (Score:5, Interesting)

    by digitaldc ( 879047 ) * on Friday October 22, 2010 @11:13AM (#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.
  • Good Old Day? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 22, 2010 @11:15AM (#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!

  • by fermion ( 181285 ) on Friday October 22, 2010 @11:34AM (#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 @11:34AM (#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 on Friday October 22, 2010 @11:34AM (#33985666)

    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 setting the appropriate RGB values across three pages of memory. You could even do some awesome animations with XOR routines and clever masking. Want to draw a circle? We did it the manly way with Bressenham routines written directly in assembler....

    All these layers now.. Heck, a modern OS has a dozen layers of abstraction before a character gets drawn on screen...

    I'm not complaining though... Imagine trying to write a word processor or a browser if you still had to worry about how to display a PNG image or write directly to display memory...

    But I miss those days when one could grok a machine and its OS.

    Much later in my career I got my hands on an Atari ST. You want to know how those layers hid the true speed of the machine? Well, TOS/GEM was notoriously sub-optimal in certain routines. Character drawing was one of them. It gave the opportunity for third parties to re-write some character drawing routines and sell them. Scrolling a 2000 line document in the un-optimized version may take minutes. With the optimized code it dropped to seconds...

    So sitting in front of a 2.6+ GhZ machine with 4 cores, 8G of RAM, I feel that man.. imagine what I could DO if my little brain could wrap itself around the complexity of this massive OS...

  • Re:Back in the days (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CAIMLAS ( 41445 ) on Friday October 22, 2010 @12:30PM (#33986506) Homepage

    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?

  • Re:So.... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by iluvcapra ( 782887 ) on Friday October 22, 2010 @01:13PM (#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 [] and others.

    Compare also the opinion of John Sculley [] 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.

  • Re:Finally! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Friday October 22, 2010 @01:34PM (#33987550) Journal

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

  • Re:Good Old Day? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Friday October 22, 2010 @05:48PM (#33990994) Journal

    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 revel in undercutting their base for increasing click-through rates. Clearly, there haven't been enough stories on global warming recently...

    Not to single him out as the single raindrop responsible for said flood, but I happen to be dealing with one such loud and ignorant new user right now: []

    I've often considered leaving in recent times, but I've rode through worse problems on /. repeatedly before, and am still hoping this one will be temporary as well.

    The friends/foes system is really the only reason I've stayed this long. It at least ensures I'll see some insightful comments from a handful of long-time regulars like myself, and can drop the flamers and trolls that regularly get points. Still it's a much smaller pool of intelligence, and nowhere near as good a public discussion forum as it was a few short years ago.

    So there's your answer. Want more insightful user feedback? Go start up a new Slashdot, with better leadership, and a focus on quality over pure click-through ad numbers.

"The way of the world is to praise dead saints and prosecute live ones." -- Nathaniel Howe