Book Review: Coders at Work

The book, Coders at Work was published at a very ideal time for me. I was pretty comfortable with my progress towards learning Python last year, and have been looking around for another language to start tooling around with on my computers. The book seemed like a good opportunity to get a peak into the minds of a select group of coders and see what they might have to say on the matter.

Coders at Work, by Peter Seibel, is a collection of interviews with fifteen very accomplished programmers and computer scientists. These individuals range from the young and self-educated to retired doctoral researchers. That was what first caught my eye on the book. It was very clear that with that broad range of contributors, I thought it would give a nice unbiased view on programming and computer science.

I read the book with a specific question in my mind and used it to measure what I read: What does this person have to say that I can use to be a better software developer? I hardly believe that I am alone in asking this question about my career and there is a wealth of material out there that aims to do that. As I read the book, I realized that I could ask a more important and specific question about myself: What does this person have to say about how I perceive and approach programming? After my natural tendency to analyze how we are different and similar has been satisfied, the next step was looking at how we both reached our current approaches. For me, this is where the interviews really shined.

Peter walked each of his subjects through a history of how they learned to program. He drew out the important programming accomplishments, motivations, mentors, classes, papers and books that shaped each of these programmers. At this point, I knew I had struck gold. I had in my hands a list of topics that I could explore. I could start running down the rabbit trails and see how I come out the other side.

Now that I have finished reading the book, I have even more research ahead of me and a sense of excitement. No, I’m not going to run off with the intent of memorizing the papers and mastering the tools presented in the book. Instead, I am going to continue to do what I did when I read the book: mine for more programming gold. To my fellow coders, I don’t believe I can recommend the book enough. You may not take away nearly what I did, but I’m very sure that you will learn something about yourself.

February 24th, 2010