Author: Peter Seibel
Publisher: Apress, 2009
Aimed at: All programmers
Pros: A good concept
Cons: Unexpectedly boring
Reviewed by: Ian Elliot
A series of interviews between a programmer and some of the best known names in programming. Does this format work?
I was really excited when I drew the straw that let me review this particular book, a non-technical book but one on our favourite subject - programming. What could be better? More specifically it is on programmers and their opinions of programming. I have to admit that I didn't recognize all of the programmers interviewed but the ones I did promised much. To find out what Donald Knuth though of programming would be worth the cost of the book alone and then there was Norvig, Eich, Thompson, Crockford and Deutcsh. But, of course, which programmers I had heard of and which I hadn't is largely an issue of my own background, so finding out about the names that didn't mean much to me was also an interesting promise.
I started at the beginning, as is only fair, and then moved on to the next chapter, and the next, but sadly I was becoming tired of the same questions and the largely tedious answers. "How did you get involved in programming?" "Well I first wrote a program on X in Y." Slightly interesting the first time, but it wears thin after you have heard it a few times. The author justifies the repeated use of the same questions as a way of demonstrating the diversity of opinions and hence answers that programmers have. This may be valid but it produces a very boring read and it really doesn't allow the interviewee an opportunity to say something deep and meaningful.
There is also the small matter that not all of the interviewees are great or deep thinkers. You can't help but feel that they didn't get into programming because it was a vocation and they don't really think much of the task. Others seem to know that they have done something important, but can't seem to generalize the ideas. What was more surprising is that even the interviewees that I know to be deep thinker - Donald Knuth for example - managed to sound shallow and pedestrian. What is going on here?
The main problems seems to be that the interviewer doesn't ask the right questions to bring out the spark in each of the interviewees. A good TV chat show host is one who strikes a rapport with his or her subject and gets them to talk about things that they would never normally talk about. In this case the interviews are shopping lists of accomplishments, the occasional anecdote and reminiscences of how it used to be - no passion or enthusiasm was injured in the making of this book.
There are some good bits in the book and I notice that it has received good reviews elsewhere and seems to be selling well. In the light of this I went back and tried to find out what the flaw was in me that made me find the book tedious. I found that there was a voice inside me just wanting to ask a different set of questions and actually find out what made my heroes tick. I wanted to know what drove them to spend time crafting code, what annoyed them about today's programmers, where they thought programming was going and so much more.
For me this book is an opportunity missed.