Vivek Haldar

Review: The Computer Boys Take Over

I just finished “The Computer Boys Take Over”, by Nathan Ensmenger. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and learned a lot from it. I would strongly recommend it. (Book blog)

The author delves into the history of programming as a profession, and also the question of whether it is a profession at all.

To me, one of the most fascinating bits was about how programming started out as a low status, mechanical and clerical job. The designers and creators of hardware were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by those who “designed” high-level solutions to problems, and then at the very bottom where the “coders” who would, literally, take these high-level plans and encode them into machine language. Only time and experience revealed that this was far from the lowly, clerical job that it was initially thought to be.

Another interesting thread was the continuous presence of Taylorism as a strong motivation for software engineering. From the very birth of the term at the 1968 NATO conference, the goal of software engineering was to make the construction of software just like the construction of physical goods, with a “software factory” being the ultimate goal. The strong intuitive and artisanal tendencies of the programming community were always at odds with this.

My only criticism is that it reads exactly like what it is–an academic dissertation turned into a book, and as such it can be a bit dry. This minor problem should not detract from an otherwise engaging journey.