Chapter-by-chapter coverage of Masterminds of Programming

By Andy Oram
September 24, 2009 | Comments: 3

Programmer Taran Rampersad planned all along to write a review of Masterminds of Programming: Conversations with the Creators of Major Programming Languages--but his reading impressed him so much he ended up writing a review for each chapter.

Taran is a broadly trained computer scientist who contacted me a couple years ago and wrote a PDF for O'Reilly on another pet project of his, setting up a base in Second Life. He brought plenty of personal knowledge about languages to his reading of Masterminds of Programming. I think that, like me and many other people, he was overjoyed to see the famous creators of languages bearing their souls and airing their opinions about all manner of topics.

You can read Taran's main review on his blog and find the rest under his Book Reviews section.

The book pulls together 28 contributors (I'm including in that count Sir Tony Hoare, who wrote the foreword), many of whom--such as Aho, Weinberger, and Kernighan; Jacobson, Rumbaugh, and Booch; James Gosling; Larry Wall; Bjarne Stroustrup; and Anders Hejlsberg--are household names in the programming community, while the rest ought to be. Some languages that you might consider obscure will no longer feel that way after you hear their place in computing history.

One example of a rescue from a near-death experience is Objective-C, which only began to pick up steam when Apple Computer released Cocoa for its desktop programming, and then with the release of the iPhone SDK has suddenly become the hot language of the year. Few of the thousands of programmers struggling with subtle Objective-C issues know of Tom Love and Brad Cox; this book will bring them into your living room. You'll find out, for instance, why Cox is leaving behind what he calls the "mud brick" level of programming and carrying on at a much higher level of abstraction.

But reading the interviews with Love and Cox won't instantly turn you into a better Objective-C coder. Masterminds of Programming isn't that kind of book. It's neither a reference nor a textbook, but a set of conversations. It's after you read a few of the interviews that you begin to feel the contours of your brain knocking on your skull to expand and let it stretch and twist about.

I might as well use this space to answer the questions I get all the time (including from my own managers, "Why wasn't (P or L) in the book?" where P is some well-known person, and L is the favorite language of the person asking the question. The answer: Federico and Shane worked enormously hard to contact every living language creator on a long list of languages. Tragically, a couple creators died during our contact phase. Others were too busy or had contractual barriers to participation. But the 28 who joined in make a historic collection.

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Yes, discussions. And even after having read some of them, I know I'll end up going back and looking at some of the same discussions differently as I become more experienced. In that way I respectfully disagree, ever so slightly - it is a bit of a reference. Each language has been, for one reason or another, an experiment. And each has been successful in their own ways - and even failing in other ways.

It's a landmark book, I think. Varying languages all at different points in the software life cycle - and different software life cycles!

I was pleased to read this book. And I will reference it in the future.

Just received a copy of this book and I'm quite excited to dig into it. My excitement was somewhat tempered by the lack of mention for Ruby - as fantastic of a language as I've seen in a long time. It really deserved a spot within this book, and not including was a glaring omission.

Michael, we got every living creator of a significant language that we could into the book. Several people have said "Why not this one?" or "Why not that one?" and the reasons usually were that they had some conflict of interest or didn't have the time. In Matsumoto's case, he didn't feel comfortable writing in English and we found that translation would be too expensive. Check out his short chapter in "Beautiful Code" for a great exposition of his philosophy (we found someone to translate it for free0.

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