Ellen Ullman, Close to the Machine - Seneca

Disappearing into the code: A deadline brings
programmers to the place of no shame. Excerpt
from "Close to the Machine."
By Ellen Ullman Oct. 9, 1997
This is the first of two excerpts in
Salon 21st from Ellen Ullman's new
book, "Close to the Machine:
Technophilia and its Discontents"
(City Lights Books, $21.95, 189
pp.), an autobiographical
exploration of the lives and minds of
software engineers.
I have no idea what time it is. There
are no windows in this office and no
clock, only the blinking red LED
display of a microwave, which
flashes 12:00, 12:00, 12:00, 12:00.
Joel and I have been programming for days. We have a bug, a stubborn
demon of a bug. So the red pulse no-time feels right, like a read-out of our
brains, which have somehow synchronized themselves at the same blink
"But what if they select all the text and --"
" -- hit Delete."
"Damn! The NULL case!"
"And if not we're out of the text field and they hit space --"
"-- yeah, like for --"
"-- no parameter --"
"So what if we space-pad?"
"I don't know ... Wait a minute!"
"Yeah, we could space-pad --"
" -- and do space as numeric."
"Yes! We'll call SendKey(space) to --"
"-- the numeric object."
"My God! That fixes it!"
"Yeah! That'll work if --"
"-- space is numeric!"
"-- if space is numeric!"
We lock eyes. We barely breathe. For a slim moment, we are together in a
universe where two human beings can simultaneously understand the
statement "if space is numeric!"
Joel and I started this round of debugging on Friday morning. Sometime
later, maybe Friday night, another programmer, Danny, came to work. I
suppose it must be Sunday by now because it's been a while since we've
seen my client's employees around the office. Along the way, at odd times of
day or night that have completely escaped us, we've ordered in three meals
of Chinese food, eaten six large pizzas, consumed several beers, had
innumerable bottles of fizzy water, and finished two entire bottles of wine. It
has occurred to me that if people really knew how software got written, I'm
not sure if they'd give their money to a bank or get on an airplane ever
What are we working on? An artificial intelligence project to find "subversive"
talk over international phone lines? Software for the second start-up of a
Silicon Valley executive banished from his first company? A system to help
AIDS patients get services across a city? The details escape me just now. We
may be helping poor sick people or tuning a set of low-level routines to verify
bits on a distributed database protocol -- I don't care. I should care; in
another part of my being -- later, perhaps when we emerge from this room
full of computers -- I will care very much why and for whom and for what
purpose I am writing software. But just now: no. I have passed through a
membrane where the real world and its uses no longer matter. I am a
software engineer, an independent contractor working for a department of a
city government. I've hired Joel and three other programmers to work with
me. Down the hall is Danny, a slim guy in wire-rimmed glasses who comes to
work with a big, wire-haired dog. Across the bay in his converted backyard
shed is Mark, who works on the database. Somewhere, probably asleep by
now, is Bill the network guy. Right now, there are only two things in the
universe that matter to us. One, we have some bad bugs to fix. Two, we're
supposed to install the system on Monday, which I think is tomorrow.
"Oh no, no!" moans Joel, who is slumped over his keyboard. "No-o-o-o ." It
comes out in a long wail. It has the sound of lost love, lifetime regret. We've
both been programmers long enough to know that we are at that place. If we
find one more serious problem we can't solve right away, we will not make it.
We won't install. We'll go the terrible, familiar way of all software: we'll be
"No, no, no, no. What if the members of the set start with spaces. Oh, God.
It won't work."
He is as near to naked despair as has ever been shown to me by anyone not
in a film. Here, in that place, we have no shame. He has seen me sleeping on
the floor, drooling. We have both seen Danny's puffy, white midsection -young as he is, it's a pity -- when he stripped to his underwear in the heat of
the machine room. I have seen Joel's dandruff, light coating of cat fur on his
clothes, noticed things about his body I should not. And I'm sure he's seen
my sticky hair, noticed how dull I look without make-up, caught sight of
other details too intimate to mention. Still, none of this matters anymore.
Our bodies were abandoned long ago, reduced to hunger and sleeplessness
and the ravages of sitting for hours at a keyboard and a mouse. Our physical
selves have been battered away. Now we know each other in one way and
one way only: the code.
Besides, I know I can now give him pleasure of an order which is rare in any
life: I am about to save him from despair.
"No problem," I say evenly. I put my hand on his shoulder, intending a
gesture of reassurance. "The parameters never start with a space."
It is just as I hoped. His despair vanishes. He becomes electric, turns to the
keyboard and begins to type at a rapid speed. Now he is gone from me. He is
disappearing into the code -- now that he knows it will work, now that I have
reassured him that, in our universe, the one we created together, space can
indeed be forever and reliably numeric.
The connection, the shared thought-stream, is cut. It has all the frustration
of being abandoned by a lover just before climax. I know this is not physical
love. He is too young, he works for me; he's a man and I've been tending
toward women; in any case, he's too prim and business-schooled for my
tastes. I know this sensation is not real attraction: it is only the spillover, the
excess charge, of the mind back into the abandoned body. Only. Ha. This is
another real-world thing that does not matter. My entire self wants to melt
into this brilliant, electric being who has shared his mind with me for twenty
Restless, I go into the next room where Danny is slouched at his keyboard.
The big, wire-haired dog growls at me. Danny looks up, scowls like his dog,
then goes back to typing. I am the designer of this system, his boss on this
project. But he's not even trying to hide his contempt. Normal programmer, I
think. He has 15 windows full of code open on his desktop. He has
overpopulated his eyes, thoughts, imagination. He is drowning in bugs and I
know I could help him, but he wants me dead just at the moment. I am the
last-straw irritant. Talking: Shit! What the hell is wrong with me? Why would
I want to talk to him? Can't I see that his stack is overflowing?
"Joel may have the overlapping controls working," I say.
"Oh, yeah?" He doesn't look up.
"He's been using me as a programming dummy," I say. "Do you want to talk
me through the navigation errors?" Navigation errors: bad. You click to go
somewhere but get somewhere else. Very, very bad.
"What?" He pretends not to hear me.
"Navigation errors. How are they?"
"I'm working on them." Huge, hateful scowl. Contempt that one human being
should not express to another under any circumstances. Hostility that should
kill me, if I were not used to it, familiar with it, practiced in receiving it.
Besides, we are at that place. I know that this hateful programmer is all I
have between me and the navigation bug. "I'll come back later," I say.
Later: how much later can it get? Daylight can't be far off now. This small
shoal of pre-installation madness is washing away even as I wander back
down the hall to Joel.
"Yes! It's working!" says Joel, hearing my approach.
He looks up at me. "You were right," he says. The ultimate one programmer
can say to another, the accolade given so rarely as to be almost unknown in
our species. He looks right at me as he says it: "You were right. As always."
This is beyond rare. Right: the thing a programmer desires above, beyond
all. As always: unspeakable, incalculable gift.
"I could not have been right without you," I say. This is true beyond
question. "I only opened the door. You figured out how to go through."
I immediately see a certain perfume advertisement: A man holding a violin
embraces a woman at a piano. I want to be that ad. I want efficacies of
reality to vanish, and I want to be the man with violin, my programmer to be
the woman at the piano. As in the ad, I want the teacher to interrupt the
lesson and embrace the student. I want the rules to be broken. Tabu. That is
the name of the perfume. I want to do what is taboo. I am the boss, the
senior, the employer, the person in charge. So I must not touch him. It is all
taboo. Still -Danny appears in the doorway.
"The navigation bug is fixed. I'm going home."
"I'll test it --"
"It's fixed."
He leaves.
It is sometime in the early morning. Joel and I are not sure if the night guard
is still on duty. If we leave, we may not get back up the elevator. We leave
We find ourselves on the street in a light drizzle. He has on a raincoat, one
that he usually wears over his too-prim, too-straight, good-biz-school suits. I
have on a second-hand-store leather bomber jacket, black beret, boots.
Someone walking by might wonder what we were doing together at this stilldark hour of the morning.
"Goodnight," I say. We're still charged with thought energy. I don't dare
extend my hand to shake his.
"Goodnight, " he says.
We stand awkwardly for two beats more. "This will sound strange," he says,
"but I hope I don't see you tomorrow."
We stare at each other, still drifting in the wake of our shared mind-stream. I
know exactly what he means. We will only see each other tomorrow if I find
a really bad bug.
"Not strange at all," I say, "I hope I don't see you either."
The project begins in the programmer's mind with the beauty of a crystal. I
remember the feel of a system at the early stages of programming, when the
knowledge I am to represent in code seems lovely in its structuredness. For a
time, the world is a calm, mathematical place. Human and machine seem
attuned to a cut-diamond-like state of grace. Once in my life I tried
methamphetamine: That speed high is the only state that approximates the
feel of a project at its inception. Yes, I understand. Yes, it can be done. Yes,
how straightforward. Oh yes. I see.
Then something happens. As the months of coding go on, the irregularities of
human thinking start to emerge. You write some code, and suddenly there
are dark, unspecified areas. All the pages of careful design documents, and
still, between the sentences, something is missing. Human thinking can skip
over a great deal, leap over small misunderstandings, can contain ifs and
buts in untroubled corners of the mind. But the machine has no corners.
Despite all the attempts to see the computer as a brain, the machine has no
foreground or background. It can be programmed to behave as if it were
working with uncertainty, but -- underneath, at the code, at the circuits -- it
cannot simultaneously do something and withhold for later something that
remains unknown. In the painstaking working out of the specification, line by
code line, the programmer confronts an awful, inevitable truth: the ways of
human and machine understanding are disjunct.
Now begins a process of frustration. The programmer goes back to the
analysts with questions, the analysts to the users, the users to their
managers, the managers back to the analysts, the analysts to the
programmers. It turns out that some things are just not understood. No one
knows the answers to some questions. Or worse, there are too many
answers. A long list of exceptional situations is revealed, things that occur
very rarely but that occur all the same. Should these be programmed? Yes,
of course. How else will the system do the work human beings need to
accomplish? Details and exceptions accumulate. Soon the beautiful crystal
must be recut. This lovely edge and that are lost. What began in a state of
grace soon reveals itself to be a jumble. The human mind, as it turns out, is
Gone is the calm, mathematical world. The clear, clean methedrine high is
over. The whole endeavor has become a struggle against disorder. A battle of
wills. A testing of endurance. Requirements muddle up; changes are needed
immediately. Meanwhile, no one has changed the system deadline. The
programmer, who needs clarity, who must talk all day to a machine that
demands declarations, hunkers down into a low-grade annoyance. It is here
that the stereotype of the programmer, sitting in a dim room, growling from
behind Coke cans, has its origins. The disorder of the desk, the floor; the
yellow post-it notes everywhere; the white boards covered with scrawl: all
this is the outward manifestation of the messiness of human thought. The
messiness cannot go into the program; it piles up around the programmer.
Soon the programmer has no choice but to retreat into some private interior
space, closer to the machine, where things can be accomplished. The
machine begins to seem friendlier than the analysts, the users, the
managers. The real-world reflection of the program -- who cares anymore?
Guide an X-ray machine or target a missile; print a budget or a dossier; run
a city subway or a disk-drive read/write arm: it all begins to blur. The system
has crossed the membrane -- the great filter of logic, instruction by
instruction -- where it has been cleansed of its linkages to actual human life.
The goal now is not whatever all the analysts first set out to do; the goal
becomes the creation of the system itself. Any ethics or morals or second
thoughts, any questions or muddles or exceptions, all dissolve into a junky
Nike-mind: Just do it. If I just sit here and code, you think, I can make
something run. When the humans come back to talk changes, I can just run
the program. Show them: Here. Look at this. See? This is not just talk. This
runs. Whatever you might say, whatever the consequences, all you have are
words and what I have is this, this thing I've built, this operational system.
Talk all you want, but this thing here: it works.
SALON | Oct. 9, 1997
Ellen Ullman is a software engineer who lives in San Francisco and writes
about her profession.
sliced off by the cutting edge
Sliced off by the cutting edge: It's impossible for programmers to keep up with every trend even when
they're eager and willing. What happens when they despair? Excerpt from "Close to the Machine."
By Ellen Ullman Oct. 16, 1997
-----------------------------------This is the second of two excerpts in Salon 21st from Ellen Ullman's new book, "Close to the
Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents" (City Lights Books, $21.95, 189 pages), an
autobiographical exploration of the lives and minds of software engineers.
It had to happen to me sometime: sooner or later I would have to lose sight
of the cutting edge. That moment every technical person fears -- the fall into
knowledge exhaustion, obsolescence, techno-fuddy-duddyism -- there was
no reason to think I could escape it forever. Still, I didn't expect it so soon.
And not there: not at the AIDS project I'd been developing, where I fancied
myself the very deliverer of high technology to the masses.
It happened in the way of all true-life humiliations: when you think you're
better than the people around you. I had decided to leave the project; I
agreed to help find another consultant, train another team. There I was,
finding my own replacement. I called a woman I thought was capable,
experienced -- and my junior. I thought I was doing her a favor; I thought
she should be grateful.
She arrived with an entourage of eight, a group she had described on the
telephone as "Internet heavy-hitters from Palo Alto." They were all in their
early 30s. The men had excellent briefcases, wore beautiful suits, and each
breast pocket bulged ever so slightly with what was later revealed to be a
tiny, exquisite cellular phone. One young man was so blonde, so pale-eyed,
so perfectly white, he seemed to have stepped out of a propaganda film for
National Socialism. Next to him was a woman with blonde frosted hair,
chunky real-gold bracelets, red nails, and a short skirt, whom I took for a
marketing type; she turned out to be in charge of "physical network
configuration." This group strutted in with all the fresh-faced drive of technocapitalism, took their seats beneath the AIDS prevention posters ("Warriors
wear shields with men and women!" "I take this condom everywhere I bring
my penis!"), and began their sales presentation.
They were pushing an intranet. This is a system using all the tools of the
Internet -- Web browser, net server -- but on a private network. It is all the
rage, it is cool, it is what everyone is talking about. It is the future and, as
the woman leading the group made clear, what I have been doing is the
past. "An old-style enterprise system" is what she called the application as I
had built it, "a classic."
My client was immediately awed by their wealth, stunned silent by their selfassurance. The last interviewee had been a nervous man in an ill-fitting suit,
shirt washed but not quite ironed, collar crumpled over shiny polyester tie.
Now here came these smooth new visitors, with their "physical network
configuration" specialist, their security expert, their application designer, and
their "technology paradigm." And they came with an attitude -- the AIDS
project would be lucky to have them.
It was not only their youth and high-IQ arrogance that bothered me. It
wasn't just their unbelievable condescension ("For your edification, ma'am,"
said one slouch-suited young man by way of beginning an answer to one of
my questions). No, this was common enough. I'd seen it all before,
everywhere, and I'd see it again in the next software engineer I'd meet.
What bothered me was just that: the ordinariness of it. From the hostile
scowl of my own programmer to the hard-driving egos of these "Internet
heavy-hitters": normal as pie. There they were on the cutting edge of our
profession, and their arrogance was as natural as breathing. And in those
slow moments while their vision of the future application was sketched across
the white boards -- intranet, Internet, cool, hip, and happening -- I knew I
had utterly and completely lost that arrogance in myself.
I missed it. Suddenly and inexplicably, I wanted my arrogance back. I
wanted to go back to the time when I thought that, if I tinkered a bit, I could
make anything work. That I could learn anything, in no time, and be good at
it. The arrogance is a job requirement. It is the confidence-builder that lets
you keep walking toward the thin cutting edge. It's what lets you forget that
your knowledge will be old in a year, you've never seen this new technology
before, you have only a dim understanding of what you're doing, but -- hey,
this is fun -- and who cares since you'll figure it all out somehow.
But the voice that came out of me was not having fun.
"These intranet tools aren't proven," I found myself saying. "They're all
release 1.0 -- if that. Most are in beta test. And how long have you been
doing this? What -- under a year? Exactly how many intranets have you
implemented successfully?"
My objections were real. The whole idea wasn't a year old. The tools weren't
proven. New versions of everything were being released almost as we spoke.
And these heavy-hitters had maybe done one complete intranet job before
this -- maybe. But in the past none of this would have bothered me. I would
have seen it as part of the usual engineering trade-offs, get something, give
up something else. And the lure of the new would have been irresistible: the
next cover to take off, the next black box to open.
But now, no. I didn't want to take off any covers. I didn't want to confront
any more unknowns. I simply felt exhausted. I didn't want to learn the
intranet, I wanted it to be a bad idea, and I wanted it all just to go away.
"And what about network traffic?" I asked. "Won't this generate a lot of
network traffic? Aren't you optimizing for the wrong resource? I mean,
memory and disk on the desktop are cheap, but the network bandwidth is
still scarce and expensive."
More good objections, more justifications for exhaustion.
"And intranets are good when the content changes frequently -- catalogs,
news, that kind of stuff. This is a stable application. The dataset won't
change but once a year."
Oh, Ellen, I was thinking, What a great fake you are. I was thinking this
because, even as I was raising such excellent issues, I knew it was all beside
the point. What I was really thinking was: I have never written an intranet
program in my life, I have never hacked on one, I have never even seen one.
What I was really feeling was panic.
I'd seen other old programmers act like this, get obstructionist and hostile in
the face of their new-found obsolescence, and there I was, practically
growing an old guy's gut on the spot. But the role had a certain momentum,
and once I'd stepped on the path of the old programmer, there seemed to be
no way back. "And what happens after you leave?" I asked. "There just
aren't that many intranet experts out there. And they're expensive. Do you
really think this technology is appropriate for this client?"
"Well," answered the woman I'd invited, the one I'd thought of as my junior,
the one I was doing a favor, "you know, there are the usual engineering
Engineering trade-offs. Right answer. Just what I would have said once.
"And besides," said the woman surrounded by her Internet heavy-hitters,
"like it or not, this is what will be happening in the future."
The future. Right again. The new: irresistible, like it or not.
But I didn't like it. I was parting ways with it. And exactly at that moment, I
had a glimpse of the great, elusive cutting edge of technology. I was
surprised to see that it looked like a giant cosmic Frisbee. It was yellow,
rotating at a great rate, and was slicing off into the universe, away from me.
I learned to program a computer in 1971; my first programming job came in
1978. Since then, I have taught myself six higher-level programming
languages, three assemblers, two data-retrieval languages, eight jobprocessing languages, seventeen scripting languages, ten types of macros,
two object-definition languages, sixty-eight programming-library interfaces,
five varieties of networks, and eight operating environments -- fifteen, if you
cross-multiply the distinct combinations of operating systems and networks. I
don't think this makes me particularly unusual. Given the rate of change in
computing, anyone who's been around for a while could probably make a list
like this.
This process of remembering technologies is a little like trying to remember
all your lovers: you have to root around in the past and wonder, Let's see.
Have I missed anybody? In some ways, my personal life has made me
uniquely suited to the technical life. I'm a dedicated serial monogamist -long periods of intense engagement punctuated by times of great
restlessness and searching. As hard as this may be on the emotions, it is a
good profile for technology.
I've managed to stay in a perpetual state of learning only by maintaining
what I think of as a posture of ignorant humility. This humility is as
mandatory as arrogance. Knowing an IBM mainframe -- knowing it as you
would a person, with all its good qualities and deficiencies, knowledge gained
in years of slow anxious probing -- is no use at all when you sit down for the
first time in front of a UNIX machine. It is sobering to be a senior
programmer and not know how to log on.
There is only one way to deal with this humiliation: bow your head, let go of
the idea that you know anything, and ask politely of this new machine, "How
do you wish to be operated?" If you accept your ignorance, if you really
admit to yourself that everything you know is now useless, the new machine
will be good to you and tell you: here is how to operate me.
Once it tells you, your single days are over. You are involved again. Now you
can be arrogant again. Now you must be arrogant: you must believe you can
come to know this new place as well as the old -- no, better. You must now
dedicate yourself to that deep slow probing, that patience and frustration,
the anxious intimacy of a new technical relationship. You must give yourself
over wholly to this: you must believe this is your last lover.
I have known programmers who managed to stay with one or two operating
systems their entire careers -- solid married folks, if you will. But, sorry to
say, our world has very little use for them. Learn it, do it, learn another:
that's the best way. UNIX programmers used to scoff at COBOL drones, stuck
year by year in the wasteland of corporate mainframes. Then, just last year,
UNIX became old-fashioned, Windows NT is now the new environment, and
it's time to move on again. Don't get comfortable, don't get too attached,
don't get married. Fidelity in technology is not even desirable. Loyalty to one
system is career-death. Is it any wonder that programmers make such good
social libertarians?
Every Monday morning, three trade weeklies come sliding through my mail
slot. I've come to dread Mondays, not for the return to work but for these fat
loads of newness piled on the floor waiting for me. I cannot possibly read all
those pages. But then again, I absolutely must know what's in them.
Somewhere in that pile is what I must know and what I must forget.
Somewhere, if I can only see it, is the outline of the future.
Once a year, I renew my subscription to the Microsoft Professional Developer
Network. And so an inundation of CD-ROMs continues. Quarterly, seasonally,
monthly, whenever -- with an odd and relentless periodicity -- UPS shows up
at my door with a new stack of disks. New versions of operating systems,
libraries, tools -- everything you need to know to keep pace with Microsoft.
The disks are barely loaded before I turn around and UPS is back again: a
new stack of disks, another load of newness.
Every month come the hardware and software catalogs: the Black Box
networking book, five hundred pages of black-housed components turned
around to show the back panel; PCs Compleat, with its luscious just-out
laptops; and my favorite, the Programmer's Paradise, on the cover a cartoon
guy in wild bathing trunks sitting under a palm tree. He is all alone on a tiny
desert island but he is happy: he is surrounded by boxes of the latest
programming tools.
Then there is the Microsoft Systems Journal, a monthly that evangelizes the
Microsoft way while handing out free code samples. The Economist, to
remind myself how my libertarian colleagues see the world. Upside, Wired,
The Red Herring: the People magazines of technology. The daily Times and
Wall Street Journal. And then, as if all this periodical literature were not
enough, as if I weren't already drowning in information -- here comes the
Web. Suddenly, monthly updates are unthinkable, weekly stories laughable,
daily postings almost passé. "If you aren't updating three times a day, you're
not realizing the potential of the medium," said one pundit, complaining
about an on-line journal that was refreshing its content -- shocking! -- only
once a day.
There was a time when all this newness was exhilarating. I would pore over
the trade weeklies, tearing out pages, saving the clips in great messy piles. I
ate my meals reading catalogs. I pestered nice young men taking orders on
the other end of 800 phone lines; I learned their names and they mine. A
manual for a new programming tool would call out to me like a fussy, rustling
baby from inside its wrapping.
What has happened to me that I just feel tired? The weeklies come, and I
barely flip the pages before throwing them on the recycle pile. The new
catalogs come and I just put them on the shelf. The invoice for the
Professional Developer Subscription just came from Microsoft: I'm thinking of
doing the unthinkable and not renewing.
I'm watching the great, spinning, cutting edge slice away from me -- and I'm
just watching. I'm almost fascinated by my own self-destructiveness. I know
the longer I do nothing, the harder it will be to get back. Technologic time is
accelerated, like the lives of very large dogs: six months of inattention might
as well be years. Yet I'm doing nothing anyway. For the first time in nineteen
years, the new has no hold on me. This terrifies me. It also makes me feel
buoyant and light.
SALON | Oct. 16, 1997
Ellen Ullman is a software engineer who lives in San Francisco and writes
about her profession.
Elegance & Entropy
Elegance and entropy: An interview with Ellen Ullman.
By Scott Rosenberg
Oct. 9, 1997
By Scott Rosenberg
Like thousands of software
engineers, Ellen Ullman writes code.
Unlike her colleagues, she also
writes about what it's like to write
code. In a 1995 essay titled "Out of
Time: Reflections on the
Programming Life," included in the
collection "Resisting the Virtual Life,"
Ullman got inside the heads of
professional programmers -- and
introduced a lot of readers to an
intricate new world. "The
programming life," as Ullman depicts
it, is a constant tug of war between the computer's demand for exactitude
and the entropic chaos of real life.
In her new book, "Close to the Machine," which is being excerpted in Salon
21st this week and next, she tells autobiographical stories from inside today's
software-engineering beast -- everything from the trials of programming a
Web service for AIDS patients and clinics to a romance with a shaggy rebel
cryptographer who wants to finance his anonymous global banking system by
running an offshore porn server.
I talked with Ullman in the brick-lined downtown San Francisco loft she
shares with a sleek cat named Sadie and four well-hidden computers.
In "Close to the Machine" you tell the tale of a boss at a small
company whose new computer system lets him monitor the work of a
loyal secretary -- something he'd never before thought necessary.
You call that "the system infecting the user." But a lot of people view
the computer as a neutral tool.
Tools are not neutral. The computer is not a neutral tool. A hammer may or
may not be a neutral tool: you know, smash a skull or build a house. But we
use a hammer to be a hammer. A computer is a general-purpose machine
with which we engage to do some of our deepest thinking and analyzing. This
tool brings with it assumptions about structuredness, about defined
interfaces being better. Computers abhor error.
I hate the new word processors that want to tell you, as you're typing, that
you made a mistake. I have to turn off all that crap. It's like, shut up -- I'm
thinking now. I will worry about that sort of error later. I'm a human being. I
can still read this, even though it's wrong. You stupid machine, the fact that
you can't is irrelevant to me. Abhorring error is not necessarily positive.
It's good to forgive error.
And we learn through error. We're sense-making creatures who make sense
out of chaos, out of error. We zoom around in a sea of half-understood and
half-known things. And so it affects us to have more and more of our life
involved with very authoritarian, error-unforgiving tools. I think people who
work around computers get more and more impatient. Programmers go into
meetings and they hate meetings. If someone meanders around and doesn't
get to the point, they'll say, what's your point!?! I think the more time you
spend around computers, the more you get impatient with other people,
impatient with their errors, you get impatient with your own errors.
Machines are also wonderful. I enjoy sitting there for hours, and there's a
reason it's so deeply engaging. It's very satisfying to us to have this thing
cycling back at you and paying attention to you, not interrupting you. But it's
not an unalloyed good -- that's my point. It's changing our way of life deeply,
like the automobile did, and in ways we don't yet understand.
When people talk about computers, they fall into two groups: the true
believers -- you know, technology will save us, new human beings are being
created. For me, as an ex-Communist, let me tell you, when people start
talking about a new human being, I get really scared. Please! We're having
trouble enough with this one! And on the other hand, other people think
computers are horrible and are ruining our lives. I'm somewhere in the
middle. I mean, we can't live without this any more. Try to imagine modern
banking. Try to imagine your life in the developed world without computers.
Not possible.
There's a lot of romanticism, in places like Wired magazine, about
digital technology evolving its own messy, chaotic systems. In "Close
to the Machine," you lean more to the view that computer systems
are rigid and pristine.
From the standpoint of what one engineer can handle, yes. You can't
program outside of the box, and things that happen that were not anticipated
by the programmer are called design flaws or bugs. A bug is something that
a programmer is supposed to do but doesn't, and a design flaw is something
that the programmer doesn't even think about.
So it's a very beautifully structured world. In computing, when something
works, engineers talk about elegant software. So in one sense, we're talking
about something very structured and reductive. And in another sense, we're
really not, you're talking about elegance, and a notion of beauty.
What makes a piece of software code elegant?
I'll try to speak by analogy. Physicists right now are not happy about their
model of the world because it seems too complicated, there are too many
exceptions. Part of the notion of elegance is that it's compact. And that out of
something very simple a great deal of complexity can grow -- that's why the
notion of fractals is very appealing. You take a very, very simple idea and it
enables tremendous complexity to happen.
So from the standpoint of a small group of engineers, you're striving for
something that's structured and lovely in its structuredness. I don't want to
make too much of this, because with most engineers there's a great deal of
ego, you want to write the most lines of code, more than anybody else,
there's a kind of macho.
Yet the more elegant program does the same thing in fewer lines.
When you're around really serious professional programmers, this code
jockey stuff really falls away, and there is a recognition that the best
programmers spend a lot of time thinking first, and working out the
algorithms on paper or in their heads, at a white board, walking. You dream
about it, you work it out -- you don't just sit there and pump out code. I've
worked with a lot of people who pumped out code, and it's frightening. Two
weeks later, you ask them about it, and it's like it never happened to them.
So the motive of a true program is a certain compact beauty and elegance
and structuredness. But the reality of programming is that programs get old
and they accumulate code over the years -- that's the only word I can use to
describe it, they accumulate modifications. So old programs, after they've
been in use 10 or 15 years, no one person understands them. And there is a
kind of madness in dealing with this.
And with the new systems we're creating, even the ones that are running
now, there's a tremendous amount of complexity. Right now, if you talk to
people who try to run real-world systems, it is a struggle against entropy.
They're always coming apart. And people don't really talk about that part
much. The real-world experience of system managers is a kind of permanent
state of emergency. Whereas programmers are kind of detached for a time
and go into this floating space, networking people live in this perpetual now.
It's the world of pagers.
They've got things that buzz them. They're ready to be gone in a minute. To
try to keep the network running is very much to be at the edge of that
entropy where things really don't want to keep running. There's nothing
smooth, there's nothing elegant. It's ugly, full of patches, let's try this, let's
try that -- very tinker-y.
That's such a different picture from the rosy vision of the Net as this
indestructible, perfectly designed organism.
One of the things I'm really glad about the success of the Web is that more
people now are being exposed to the true reality of working on a network.
Things get slowed up. It doesn't answer you; it's down. How often can't you
get to your e-mail?
I couldn't send e-mail to you to tell you I'd be late for this interview.
Some little server out there, your SMTP server, it's busy, it's gone, it's not
happy. Exactly. And this is a permanent state of affairs. I don't see anything
sinister or horrible about this, but it is more and more complex.
The main reason I wrote "Close to the Machine" was not just to talk about
my life. Of course, everyone just wants to talk about themselves. But I have
this feeling that imbedded in this technology is an implicit way of life. And
that we programmers who are creating it are imbedding our way of being in
Look at the obvious: groupware. That doesn't mean software that helps
people get together and have a meeting. It means, help people have access
to each other when they're far apart, so they don't have to get into a room,
so they don't have to have a meeting. They don't have to speak directly.
That is a programmer's idea of heaven. You can have a machine interface
that takes care of human interaction. And a defined interface. Programmers
like defined interfaces between things. Software, by its nature, creates
defined interfaces. It homogenizes, of necessity. And some of that's just
plain damn useful. I'm happy when I go to the bank and stick a card in and
they give me a wad of money. That's great.
For someone who is so immersed in the world of technology, you
take an unusually critical view of the Net.
The Net is represented as this very democratic tool because everyone's a
potential publisher. And to an extent that's true. However, it is not so easy to
put a Web site up. Technically, it's getting more and more difficult,
depending on what you want to do. It's not as if the average person wants to
put up a Web site.
The main thing that I notice is the distinction between something like a word
processor and a spreadsheet, and a Web browser. From the user's point of
view there's a completely different existential stance. The spreadsheet and
the word processor are pure context -- they just provide a structure in which
human beings can express their knowledge. And it's presumed that the
information resides in the person. These are tools that help you express,
analyze and explore very complex things -- things that you are presumed
already to know. The spreadsheet can be very simple, where essentially
you're just typing things in and it helps you to format them in columns. Or it
can be a tool for really fantastically complicated analysis. You can grow with
it, your information grows with it -- it's the ideal human-computer tool.
With a Web browser, this situation is completely reversed. The Web is all
content with very limited context. With the Web, all the information is on the
system somewhere -- it's not even on your computer. It's out there -- it
belongs to the system. More and more now even the programs don't reside
with you -- that's the notion of the thin client, the NetPC and Java.
So the whole sphere of control has shifted from the human being, the
individual sitting there trying to figure out something, to using stuff that the
system owns and looking for things that are on the system. Everyone starts
at the same level and pretty much stays there in a permanent state of
babyhood. Click. Forward. Back. Unless you get into publishing, which is a
huge leap that most people won't make.
But the Net is not one central system, it's a million systems. That
creates a lot of the confusion -- but the advantage is that there's
such a vast and diverse variety of material available.
My criticism, I suppose, is not of the Net but of the browser as an interface,
as a human tool. I'm looking at it as a piece of software that I have to use.
This is the only way I can interact with all this stuff. Some of what's out there
may be good, some of it may not be. But I don't have the tools to analyze it.
I can print it -- that's it. I can search for occurrences of a certain word. I can
form a link to it. I can go forward and back. Am I missing anything here?
What do you mean by "analyzing" a Web page?
At this point, when you put something up on the Web, you don't have to say
who put it up there, you don't have to say where it really lives, the author
could be anyone. Which is supposedly its freedom. But as a user, I'm
essentially in a position where everyone can represent themselves to me
however they wish. I don't know who I'm talking to. I don't know if this is
something that will lead to interesting conversation and worthwhile
information -- or if it's a loony toon and a waste of my time.
I'm not a big control freak, I don't really know who would administer this or
how it would be. But I would just like to see that a Web page had certain
parameters that are required: where it is and whose it is. I would like to have
some way in which I could have some notion of who I'm talking to. A digital
signature on the other end.
That's feasible today.
Yeah, but the ethos of the Net is that everything should be free, everyone
should do whatever they want -- you're creating this marketplace of ideas I
can pick and choose in. But if I don't have the tools to pick and choose and I
don't know who I'm talking to, essentially I'm walking into a room and I have
blindfolds on.
The political ethos of the Net, its extreme libertarianism -- that's another
thing that comes out of the programming social world. You know, whoever's
the most technically able can do whatever they want. It's really not
"everyone can do whatever they want"; it's that the more technically able
you are, the more you should be able to do. And that's the way it is online to
me. It is a kind of meritocracy in a very narrow sense.
How did you first become a programmer?
I've had one foot in the world that speaks English and one foot in the world
of technology almost my whole life. I majored in English, minored in biology.
The minute I got out of college, I worked as a videographer. A side note:
Those were the days when we thought that giving everybody a Portapak -- a
portable video machine -- would change the world. So I'd seen one technical
revolution. And it made me very skeptical about the idea that everyone
having a PC would change the world.
I was doing some animation stuff, and I saw people doing computer-aided
animation and found it fascinating. I asked them how they did it, and they
said, well, do you know Fortran? I wasn't thinking of becoming a professional
programmer. This was 1971, 1972. The state of the art was primitive, and I
didn't become a programmer at that point. I did photography for a living; I
was a media technician. I moved out here [to the Bay Area], pumped gas,
answered telephones for a living -- I mean, talk about professions that have
been technologically made obsolete. I liked being a switchboard operator, it
passed the time very nicely.
That's a different way of being close to a machine.
The machine is very simple -- it's the people who don't cooperate. Anyway, I
did socially useful media for women's groups, women's radio programs,
photography shows. I came of age doing media at a time when we thought it
should be imbedded in social action. And then I got more involved in political
work, in lesbian politics and women's politics, and then eventually got tired of
the splits -- people were always dividing. So I had some friends who had
joined a Communist formation, and it was the time to sort of put up or shut
up. I joined up. Of course, I did technical and media stuff for them -- I was
responsible for their graphic-arts darkroom and laying out their newspaper.
The inevitable part of my life is to be involved with machines.
In "Close to the Machine" you talk about the parallels between being
a programmer and being a Communist.
It's a very mechanistic way of thinking, very intolerant of error -- and when
things got confusing we tried to move closer to the machine, we tried to
block out notions of human complexity. You tried to turn yourself into this
machine. We were supposed to be proud of being cogs, and really
suppressing and banishing all that messy, wet chemical life that we're a part
Now, supposedly, only a cadre was supposed to go through this; the rest of
humanity wasn't. Eventually, you realize, if the world is being remade by
these people who've suppressed all these other parts of themselves, when
they're done with all their decades and decades of struggle, will they
remember how to be a complicated human being? That can happen to you if
you do programming. So I quit.
I actually went through a very serious and very damaging expulsion. And I
became a professional programmer because of that expulsion. I say in the
book, I was promoted very rapidly because my employer was amazed at my
ability to work hundreds of hours a week without complaining. But I had
been rather damaged by that year. I spent months just sitting there working
symbolic logic proofs. That was all I could do. It was the only way I could
calm myself down and try to get my brain back.
Programming was both a symptom of how crazy I was and also a great
solace. So then I got a job, and I was promoted in a minute, and they
wanted to make me a product manager, I was a product manager for a
minute, then I said no, I can't stand it, I want to program. I was a
programmer, then I was put in charge of designing a new system, then they
wanted to make me a manager again.
This has been the history of my life. Eventually I became a consultant,
because I don't want to manage programmers.
To what extent are programming languages actually languages? Can
you look at someone's code and tell what kind of person wrote this?
I can tell what kind of programmer they were, but not what type of person
they were. Code is not expressive in that way. It doesn't allow for enough
variation. It must conform to very strict rules. But programmers have styles,
they definitely have styles. Some people write very compact code. Compact
and elegant. Also, does one comment the code, and how generous are those
comments? You can get a sense of someone's generosity. Are they writing
the code with the knowledge that someone else has to come by here, or not?
Good code is written with the idea that I'll be long gone and five years from
now it, or some remnant, will still be running, and I don't want someone just
hacking it to pieces. You sort of protect your code, by leaving clear
Another rule of thumb is that all programmers hate whoever came before
them. You can't help it. There's a real distinction in programming between
new development people and people who work on other people's code. I had
this space of five years where I did only new development for systems that
had no users. Programming heaven! But very few programmers get that. It's
a privilege. The places you have to express yourself are in the algorithm
design, if you're in new development -- and that is an art. But not many
people are programming at that stage.
So if you ask me, it's not a language. We can use English to invent poetry, to
try to express things that are very hard to express. In programming you
really can't. Finally, a computer program has only one meaning: what it
does. It isn't a text for an academic to read. Its entire meaning is its
SALON | Oct. 9, 1997
The dumbing-down of programming
P A R T_O N E:
Last month I committed an act of technical
rebellion: I bought one operating system
instead of another. On the surface, this may
not seem like much, since an operating system
is something that can seem inevitable. It's
there when you get your machine, some
software from Microsoft, an ur-condition that
can be upgraded but not undone. Yet the world
is filled with operating systems, it turns out.
And since I've always felt that a computer
system is a significant statement about our
relationship to the world -- how we organize
our understanding of it, how we want to
interact with what we know, how we wish to project the whole notion of
intelligence -- I suddenly did not feel like giving in to the inevitable.
My intention had been to buy an upgrade to Windows NT Server, which was a
completely sensible thing for me to be doing. A nice, clean, up-to-date
system for an extra machine was the idea, somewhere to install my clients'
software; a reasonable, professional choice in a world where Microsoft
platforms are everywhere. But somehow I left the store carrying a box of
Linux from a company called Slackware. Linux: home-brewed, hobbyist,
group-hacked. UNIX-like operating system created in 1991 by Linus Torvalds
then passed around from hand to hand like so much anti-Soviet samizdat.
Noncommercial, sold on the cheap mainly for the cost of the documentation,
impracticable except perhaps for the thrill of actually looking at the source
code and utterly useless to my life as a software engineering consultant.
But buying Linux was no mistake. For the mere act of installing the system -stripping down the machine to its components, then rebuilding its capabilities
one by one -- led me to think about what has happened to the profession of
programming, and to consider how the notion of technical expertise has
changed. I began to wonder about the wages, both personal and social, of
spending so much time with a machine that has slowly absorbed into itself as
many complications as possible, so as to present us with a façade that says
everything can and should be "easy."
I began by ridding my system of Microsoft. I came of technical age with
UNIX, where I learned with power-greedy pleasure that you could kill a
system right out from under yourself with a single command. It's almost the
first thing anyone teaches you: Run as the root user from the root directory,
type in rm -r f *, and, at the stroke of the ENTER key, gone are all the files
and directories. Recursively, each directory deleting itself once its files have
been deleted, right down to the very directory from which you entered the
command: the snake swallowing its tail. Just the knowledge that one might
do such great destruction is heady. It is the technical equivalent of suicide,
yet UNIX lets you do it anyhow. UNIX always presumes you know what
you're doing. You're the human being, after all, and it is a mere operating
system. Maybe you want to kill off your system.
But Microsoft was determined to protect me from myself. Consumeroriented, idiot-proofed, covered by its pretty skin of icons and dialog boxes,
Windows refused to let me harm it. I had long ago lost my original start-up
disk, the system was too fritzed to make a new one and now it turned away
my subterfuges of DOS installation diskette, boot disks from other machines,
later versions of utilities. Can't reformat active drive. Wrong version
detected. Setup designed for systems without an operating system;
operating system detected; upgrade version required. A cascade of error
messages, warnings, beeps; a sort of sound and light show -- the Wizard of
Oz lighting spectacular fireworks to keep me from flinging back the curtain to
see the short fat bald man.
For Microsoft's self-protective skin is really only a show, a lure to the
determined engineer, a challenge to see if you're clever enough to rip the
covers off. The more it resisted me, the more I knew I would enjoy the
pleasure of deleting it.
Two hours later, I was stripping down the system. Layer by layer it fell away.
Off came Windows NT 3.51; off came a wayward co-installation of Windows
95 where it overlaid DOS. I said goodbye to video and sound; goodbye
wallpaper; goodbye fonts and colors and styles; goodbye windows and icons
and menus and buttons and dialogs. All the lovely graphical skins turned to
so much bitwise detritus. It had the feel of Keir Dullea turning off the keys to
HAL's memory core in the film "2001," each keyturn removing a "higher"
function, HAL's voice all the while descending into mawkish, babyish
pleading. Except that I had the sense that I was performing an exactly
opposite process: I was making my system not dumber but smarter. For now
everything on the system would be something put there by me, and in the
end the system itself would be cleaner, clearer, more knowable -- everything
I associate with the idea of "intelligent."
What I had now was a bare machine, just the hardware and its built-in logic.
No more Microsoft muddle of operating systems. It was like hosing down
your car after washing it: the same feeling of virtuous exertion, the pleasure
of the sparkling clean machine you've just rubbed all over. Yours. Known
down to the crevices. Then, just to see what would happen, I turned on the
computer. It powered up as usual, gave two long beeps, then put up a
message in large letters on the screen:
What? Had I somehow killed off my read-only memory? It doesn't matter
that you tell yourself you're an engineer and game for whatever happens.
There is still a moment of panic when things seem to go horribly wrong. I
stared at the message for a while, then calmed down: It had to be related to
not having an operating system. What else did I think could happen but
something weird?
But what something weird was this exactly? I searched the Net, found
hundreds of HOW-TO FAQs about installing Linux, thousands about
uninstalling operating systems -- endless pages of obscure factoids, strange
procedures, good and bad advice. I followed trails of links that led to
interesting bits of information, currently useless to me. Long trails that ended
in dead ends, missing pages, junk. Then, sometime about 1 in the morning,
in a FAQ about Enhanced IDE, was the answer:
This should get a prize for the PC compatible's most obscure
error message. It usually means you haven't made the primary
partition bootable ...
The earliest true-blue PCs had a BASIC interpreter built in, just
like many other home computers those days. Even today, the
Master Boot Record (MBR) code on your hard disk jumps to the
BASIC ROM if it doesn't find any active partitions. Needless to
say, there's no such thing as a BASIC ROM in today's
I had not seen a PC with built-in BASIC in some 16 years, yet here it still
was, vestigial trace of the interpreter, something still remembering a time
when the machine could be used to interpret and execute my entries as lines
in a BASIC program. The least and smallest thing the machine could do in
the absence of all else, its one last imperative: No operating system! Look for
BASIC! It was like happening upon some primitive survival response, a lowlevel bit of hard wiring, like the mysterious built-in knowledge that lets a
blind little mouseling, newborn and helpless, find its way to the teat.
This discovery of the trace of BASIC was somehow thrilling -- an ancient pot
shard found by mistake in the rubble of an excavation. Now I returned to the
FAQs, lost myself in digging, passed another hour in a delirium of trivia. Hex
loading addresses for devices. Mysteries of the BIOS old and new.
Motherboards certified by the company that had written my BIOS and
motherboards that were not. I learned that my motherboard was an orphan.
It was made by a Taiwanese company no longer in business; its BIOS had
been left to languish, supported by no one. And one moment after midnight
on Dec. 31, 1999, it would reset my system clock to ... 1980? What? Why
1980 and not zero? Then I remembered: 1980 was the year of the first IBM
PC. 1980 was Year One in desktop time.
The computer was suddenly revealed as palimpsest. The machine that is
everywhere hailed as the very incarnation of the new had revealed itself to
be not so new after all, but a series of skins, layer on layer, winding around
the messy, evolving idea of the computing machine. Under Windows was
DOS; under DOS, BASIC; and under them both the date of its origins
recorded like a birth memory. Here was the very opposite of the
authoritative, all-knowing system with its pretty screenful of icons. Here was
the antidote to Microsoft's many protections. The mere impulse toward Linux
had led me into an act of desktop archaeology. And down under all those
piles of stuff, the secret was written: We build our computers the way we
build our cities -- over time, without a plan, on top of ruins.
"My Computer" -- the infantilizing baby names of the Windows world
My Computer. This is the face offered to the world by the other machines in
the office. My Computer. I've always hated this icon -- its insulting,
infantilizing tone. Even if you change the name, the damage is done: It's how
you've been encouraged to think of the system. My Computer. My
Documents. Baby names. My world, mine, mine, mine. Network
Neighborhood, just like Mister Rogers'.
On one side of me was the Linux machine, which I'd managed to get booted
from a floppy. It sat there at a login prompt, plain characters on a black-andwhite screen. On the other side was a Windows NT system, colored little
icons on a soothing green background, a screenful of programming tools:
Microsoft Visual C++, Symantec Visual Cafe, Symantec Visual Page, Totally
Hip WebPaint, Sybase PowerBuilder, Microsoft Access, Microsoft Visual Basic
-- tools for everything from ad hoc Web-page design to corporate
development to system engineering. NT is my development platform, the
place where I'm supposed to write serious code. But sitting between my two
machines -- baby-faced NT and no-nonsense Linux -- I couldn't help thinking
about all the layers I had just peeled off the Linux box, and I began to
wonder what the user-friendly NT system was protecting me from.
Developers get the benefit of visual layout without the hassle of having to
remember HTML code.
-- Reviewers' guide to Microsoft J++
Templates, Wizards and JavaBeans Libraries Make Development Fast
-- Box for Symantec's Visual Cafe for Java
Simplify application and applet development with numerous wizards
-- Ad for Borland's JBuilder in the Programmer's Paradise catalog
Thanks to IntelliSense, the Table Wizard designs the structure of your
business and personal databases for you.
-- Box for Microsoft Access
Developers will benefit by being able to create DHTML components without
having to manually code, or even learn, the markup language.
-- Review of J++ 6.0 in PC Week, March 16, 1998.
Has custom controls for all the major Internet protocols (Windows Sockets,
FTP, Telnet, Firewall, Socks 5.0, SMPT, POP, MIME, NNTP, Rcommands, HTTP,
etc.). And you know what? You really don't need to understand any of them
to include the functionality they offer in your program.
-- Ad for Visual Internet Toolkit from the Distinct Corp. in the Components
Paradise catalog
My programming tools were full of wizards. Little dialog boxes waiting for me
to click "Next" and "Next" and "Finish." Click and drag and shazzam! -thousands of lines of working code. No need to get into the "hassle" of
remembering the language. No need to even learn it. It is a powerful sirensong lure: You can make your program do all these wonderful and
complicated things, and you don't really need to understand.
In six clicks of a wizard, the Microsoft C++ AppWizard steps me through the
creation of an application skeleton. The application will have a multidocument
interface, database support from SQL Server, OLE compound document
support as both server and container, docking toolbars, a status line, printer
and print-preview dialogs, 3-D controls, messaging API and Windows sockets
support; and, when my clicks are complete, it will immediately compile, build
and execute. Up pops a parent and child window, already furnished with
window controls, default menus, icons and dialogs for printing, finding,
cutting and pasting, saving and so forth. The process takes three minutes.
Of course, I could look at the code that the Wizard has generated. Of course,
I could read carefully through the 36 generated C++ class definitions.
Ideally, I would not only read the code but also understand all the calls on
the operating system and all the references to the library of standard
Windows objects called the Microsoft Foundation Classes. Most of all, I would
study them until I knew in great detail the complexities of servers and
containers, OLE objects, interaction with relational databases, connections to
a remote data source and the intricacies of messaging -- all the functionality
AppWizard has just slurped into my program, none of it trivial.
But everything in the environment urges me not to. What the tool
encourages me to do now is find the TODO comments in the generated code,
then do a little filling in -- constructors and initializations. Then I am to start
clicking and dragging controls onto the generated windows -- all the
prefabricated text boxes and list boxes and combo boxes and whatnot. Then
I will write a little code that hangs off each control.
In this programming world, the writing of my code has moved away from
being the central task to become a set of appendages to the entire Microsoft
system structure. I'm a scrivener here, a filler-in of forms, a setter of
properties. Why study all that other stuff, since it already works anyway?
Since my deadline is pressing. Since the marketplace is not interested in
programs that do not work well in the entire Microsoft structure, which
AppWizard has so conveniently prebuilt for me.
This not-knowing is a seduction. I feel myself drifting up, away from the core
of what I've known programming to be: text that talks to the system and its
other software, talk that depends on knowing the system as deeply as
possible. These icons and wizards, these prebuilt components that look like
little pictures, are obscuring the view that what lies under all these cascading
windows is only text talking to machine, and underneath it all is something
still looking for a BASIC interpreter. But the view the wizards offer is pleasant
and easy. The temptation never to know what underlies that ease is
overwhelming. It is like the relaxing passivity of television, the calming
blankness when a theater goes dark: It is the sweet allure of using.
My programming tools have become like My Computer. The same impulse
that went into the Windows 95 user interface -- the desire to encapsulate
complexity behind a simplified set of visual representations, the desire to
make me resist opening that capsule -- is now in the tools I use to write
programs for the system. What started out as the annoying, cloying face of a
consumer-oriented system for a naive user has somehow found its way into
C++. Dumbing-down is trickling down. Not content with infantilizing the end
user, the purveyors of point-and-click seem determined to infantilize the
programmer as well.
But what if you're an experienced engineer? What if you've already learned
the technology contained in the tool, and you're ready to stop worrying about
it? Maybe letting the wizard do the work isn't a loss of knowledge but simply
a form of storage: the tool as convenient information repository.
(To be continued.)
SALON | May 12, 1998
Go on to Part Two of "The Dumbing Down of Programming," where Ellen Ullman
explores why wizards aren't merely a helpful convenience -- and how, when
programmers come to rely too much upon "easy" tools, knowledge can disappear
into code.
Ellen Ullman is a software engineer. She is the author of "Close to the Machine:
Technophilia and its Discontents."
The dumbing-down of programming
P A R T_T W O:
I used to pass by a large computer system with the
feeling that it represented the summed-up knowledge
of human beings. It reassured me to think of all those
programs as a kind of library in which our
understanding of the world was recorded in intricate
and exquisite detail. I managed to hold onto this
comforting belief even in the face of 20 years in the
programming business, where I learned from the
beginning what a hard time we programmers have in
maintaining our own code, let alone understanding
programs written and modified over years by untold
numbers of other programmers. Programmers come
and go; the core group that once understood the issues has written its code
and moved on; new programmers have come, left their bit of understanding
in the code and moved on in turn. Eventually, no one individual or group
knows the full range of the problem behind the program, the solutions we
chose, the ones we rejected and why.
Over time, the only representation of the original knowledge becomes the
code itself, which by now is something we can run but not exactly
understand. It has become a process, something we can operate but no
longer rethink deeply. Even if you have the source code in front of you, there
are limits to what a human reader can absorb from thousands of lines of text
designed primarily to function, not to convey meaning. When knowledge
passes into code, it changes state; like water turned to ice, it becomes a new
thing, with new properties. We use it; but in a human sense we no longer
know it.
The Year 2000 problem is an example on a vast scale of knowledge
disappearing into code. And the soon-to-fail national air-traffic control
system is but one stark instance of how computerized expertise can be lost.
In March, the New York Times reported that IBM had told the Federal
Aviation Administration that, come the millennium, the existing system would
stop functioning reliably. IBM's advice was to completely replace the system
because, they said, there was "no one left who understands the inner
workings of the host computer."
No one left who understands. Air-traffic control systems, bookkeeping,
drafting, circuit design, spelling, differential equations, assembly lines,
ordering systems, network object communications, rocket launchers, atombomb silos, electric generators, operating systems, fuel injectors, CAT scans,
air conditioners -- an exploding list of subjects, objects and processes
rushing into code, which eventually will be left running without anyone left
who understands them. A world full of things like mainframe computers,
which we can use or throw away, with little choice in between. A world
floating atop a sea of programs we've come to rely on but no longer truly
understand or control. Code and forget; code and forget: programming as a
collective exercise in incremental forgetting.
Every visual programming tool, every wizard, says to the programmer: No
need for you to know this. What reassures the programmer -- what lulls an
otherwise intelligent, knowledge-seeking individual into giving up the desire
to know -- is the suggestion that the wizard is only taking care of things that
are repetitive or boring. These are only tedious and mundane tasks, says the
wizard, from which I will free you for better things. Why reinvent the wheel?
Why should anyone ever again write code to put up a window or a menu?
Use me and you will be more productive.
Productivity has always been the justification for the prepackaging of
programming knowledge. But it is worth asking about the sort of productivity
gains that come from the simplifications of click-and-drag. I once worked on
a project in which a software product originally written for UNIX was being
redesigned and implemented on Windows NT. Most of the programming team
consisted of programmers who had great facility with Windows, Microsoft
Visual C++ and the Foundation Classes. In no time at all, it seemed, they
had generated many screenfuls of windows and toolbars and dialogs, all with
connections to networks and data sources, thousands and thousands of lines
of code. But when the inevitable difficulties of debugging came, they seemed
at sea. In the face of the usual weird and unexplainable outcomes, they
stood a bit agog. It was left to the UNIX-trained programmers to fix things.
The UNIX team members were accustomed to having to know. Their view of
programming as language-as-text gave them the patience to look slowly
through the code. In the end, the overall "productivity" of the system, the
fact that it came into being at all, was the handiwork not of tools that sought
to make programming seem easy, but the work of engineers who had no fear
of "hard."
And as prebuilt components accomplish larger and larger tasks, it is no
longer only a question of putting up a window or a text box, but of an entire
technical viewpoint encapsulated in a tool or component. No matter if, like
Microsoft's definition of a software object, that viewpoint is haphazardly
designed, verbose, buggy. The tool makes it look clean; the wizard hides bad
engineering as well as complexity.
In the pretty, visual programming world, both the vendor and programmer
can get lazy. The vendor doesn't have to work as hard at producing and
committing itself to well-designed programming interfaces. And the
programmer can stop thinking about the fundamentals of the system. We
programmers can lay back and inherit the vendor's assumptions. We accept
the structure of the universe implicit in the tool. We become dependent on
the vendor. We let knowledge about difficulty and complexity come to reside
not in us, but in the program we use to write programs.
No wizard can possibly banish all the difficulties, of course. Programming is
still a tinkery art. The technical environment has become very complex -- we
expect bits of programs running anywhere to communicate with bits of
programs running anywhere else -- and it is impossible for any one individual
to have deep and detailed knowledge about every niche. So a certain degree
of specialization has always been needed. A certain amount of complexityhiding is useful and inevitable.
Yet, when we allow complexity to be hidden and handled for us, we should at
least notice what we're giving up. We risk becoming users of components,
handlers of black boxes that don't open or don't seem worth opening. We risk
becoming like auto mechanics: people who can't really fix things, who can
only swap components. It's possible to let technology absorb what we know
and then re-express it in intricate mechanisms -- parts and circuit boards and
software objects -- mechanisms we can use but do not understand in crucial
ways. This not-knowing is fine while everything works as we expected. But
when something breaks or goes wrong or needs fundamental change, what
will we do but stand a bit helpless in the face of our own creations?
An epiphany on unscrewing the computer box: Why engineers flock to Linux
Linux won't recognize my CD-ROM drive. I'm using what should be the right
boot kernel, it's supposed to handle CD-ROMs like mine, but no: The
operating system doesn't see anything at all on /dev/hdc. I try various
arcane commands to the boot loader: still nothing. Finally I'm driven back to
the HOW-TO FAQs and realize I should have started there. In just a few
minutes, I find a FAQ that describes my problem in thorough and
knowledgeable detail. Don't let anyone ever say that Linux is an unsupported
operating system. Out there is a global militia of fearless engineers posting
helpful information on the Internet: Linux is the best supported operating
system in the world.
The problem is the way the CD-ROM is wired, and as I reach for the
screwdriver and take the cover off the machine, I realize that this is exactly
what I came for: to take off the covers. And this, I think, is what is driving so
many engineers to Linux: to get their hands on the system again.
Now that I know that the CD-ROM drive should be attached as a master
device on the secondary IDE connector of my orphaned motherboard -- now
that I know this machine to the metal -- it occurs to me that Linux is a
reaction to Microsoft's consumerization of the computer, to its cutesying and
dumbing-down and bulletproofing behind dialog boxes. That Linux represents
a desire to get back to UNIX before it was Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX or Sun's
Solaris or IBM's AIX -- knowledge now owned by a corporation, released in
unreadable binary form, so easy to install, so hard to uninstall. That this
sudden movement to freeware and open source is our desire to revisit the
idea that a professional engineer can and should be able to do the one thing
that is most basic to our work: examine the source code, the actual program,
the real and unvarnished representation of the system. I exaggerate only a
little if I say that it is a reassertion of our dignity as humans working with
mere machine; a return, quite literally, to the source.
In an ideal world, I would not have to choose between the extreme polarities
of dialog box and source code. My dream system interface would allow me to
start hesitantly, unschooled. Then, as I used the facility that distinguishes me
from the machine -- the still-mysterious capacity to learn, the ability to do
something the second time in a way quite different from the first -- I could
descend a level to a smarter, quicker kind of "talk." I would want the
interface to scale with me, to follow me as my interest deepened or waned.
Down, I would say, and it would let me get my way, however stupid or
incomprehensible this seemed to it, a mere program. Up, I could say, so I
could try something new or forgotten or lost just now in a moment of my
being human, nonlinear, unpredictable.
Once my installation of Linux was working, I felt myself qualified, as a bona
fide Linux user, to attend a meeting of the Silicon Valley Linux User's Group.
Linus Torvalds, author of the Linux kernel and local godhead, was scheduled
to speak. The meeting was to be in a building in the sprawling campus of
Cisco Systems. I was early; I took a seat in a nearly empty room that held
exactly 200 chairs. By the time Torvalds arrived half an hour later, more than
twice that many people had crowded in.
Torvalds is a witty and engaging speaker, but it was not his clever jokes that
held the audience; he did not cheerlead or sell or sloganize. What he did was
a sort of engineering design review. Immediately he made it clear that he
wanted to talk about the problem he was just then working on: a
symmetrical multiprocessing kernel for Linux. For an hour and a half, the
audience was rapt as he outlined the trade-offs that go into writing an
operating system that runs on multiple processors: better isolation between
processes vs. performance; how many locks would be a good number, not
too many to degrade response, not so few to risk one program stepping on
the memory area of another; what speed of processor should you test on,
since faster processors would tend to minimize lock contention; and so on
through the many countervailing and contradictory demands on the
operating system, all valid, no one solution addressing all.
An immense calm settled over the room. We were reminded that software
engineering was not about right and wrong but only better and worse,
solutions that solved some problems while ignoring or exacerbating others.
That the machine that all the world seems to want to see as possessing some
supreme power and intelligence was indeed intelligent, but only as we
humans are: full of hedge and error, brilliance and backtrack and
compromise. That we, each of us, could participate in this collaborative
endeavor of creating the machine, to the extent we could, and to the extent
we wished.
The next month, the speaker at the Silicon Valley Linux User's Group is Marc
Andreessen, founder of Netscape. The day before, the source code for
Netscape's browser had been released on the Internet, and Andreessen is
here as part of the general celebration. The mood tonight is not cerebral.
Andreessen is expansive, talks about the release of the source code as "a
return to our roots on a personal level." Tom Paquin, manager of Mozilla, the
organization created to manage the Netscape source code, is unabashed in
his belief that free and open source can compete with the juggernaut
Microsoft, with the giants Oracle and Sun. He almost seems to believe that
Netscape's release of the source isn't an act of desperation against the
onslaught of the Microsoft browser. "Technologists drive this industry," he
says, whistling in the dark. "The conventional wisdom is it's all marketing,
but it's not."
Outside, a bus is waiting to take the attendees up to San Francisco, where a
big party is being held in a South of Market disco joint called the Sound
Factory. There is a long line outside, backed up almost to the roadway of the
Bay Bridge. Andreessen enters, and he is followed around by lights and
cameras like a rock star. In all this celebration, for just this one night, it's
almost possible to believe that technologists do indeed matter to technology,
that marketing is not all, and all we have to do is get the code to the people
who might understand it and we can reclaim our technical souls.
Meanwhile, Andreessen disappears into a crush of people, lights flash, a band
plays loudly and engineers, mostly men, stand around holding beer bottles.
Above us, projected onto a screen that is mostly ignored, is what looks like
the Netscape browser source code. The red-blue-green guns on the color
projector are not well focused. The code is too blurry, scrolling by too
quickly, to be read.
SALON | May 13, 1998
Ellen Ullman is a software engineer. She is the author of "Close to the Machine:
Technophilia and its Discontents."
----------------------T A B L E_.T A L K
Is programming being "dumbed-down"? Are "easy" programming tools and wizards changing the nature of
programming? Is knowledge disappearing into code? Come to Table Talk's Digital Culture area and talk
about Ellen Ullman's "The Dumbing-Down of Programming."
----------------------R E L A T E D_.S A L O N_.S T O R I E S
Disappearing into the code: A deadline brings programmers to the place of no shame. Excerpt from "Close
to the Machine."
By Ellen Ullman
Oct. 9, 1997
Sliced off by the cutting edge: It's impossible for programmers to keep up with every trend even when
they're eager and willing. What happens when they despair? Excerpt from "Close to the Machine."
By Ellen Ullman
Oct. 16, 1997
Elegance and entropy: An interview with Ellen Ullman.
By Scott Rosenberg
Oct. 9, 1997
Wired Archive | 7.04 - Apr 1999 | Feature
The Myth of Order
The real lesson of Y2K is that software operates just like any natural
system: out of control.
By Ellen Ullman
Y2K has uncovered a hidden side of computing. It's always been there, of course,
and always will be. It's simply been obscured by the pleasures we get from our
electronic tools and toys, and then lost in the zingy glow of techno-boosterism. Y2K
is showing everyone what technical people have been dealing with for years: the
complex, muddled, bug-bitten systems we all depend on, and their nasty tendency
toward the occasional disaster.
It's almost a betrayal. After being told for years that technology is the path to a
highly evolved future, it's come as something of a shock to discover that a computer
system is not a shining city on a hill - perfect and ever new - but something more
akin to an old farmhouse built bit by bit over decades by nonunion carpenters.
The reaction has been anger, outrage even - how could all you programmers be so
stupid? Y2K has challenged a belief in digital technology that has been almost
religious. But it's not surprising. The public has had little understanding of the
context in which Y2K exists. Glitches, patches, crashes - these are as inherent to the
process of creating an intelligent electronic system as is the beauty of an elegant
algorithm, the satisfaction of a finely tuned program, the gee-whiz pleasure of
messages sent around the world at light speed. Until you understand that computers
contain both of these aspects - elegance and error - you can't really understand Y2K.
"Bugs are an unintended source of inspiration. Many times I've seen a
bug in a game and thought, 'That's cool - I wouldn't have thought of
that in a million years.'" - Will Wright, creator of SimCity and chief
game designer at Maxis
"I've fixed about 1,000 bugs in my life. How many have I created?
Undoubtedly more." - Patrick Naughton, executive vice president of
products, Infoseek
Technically speaking, the "millennium bug" is not a bug at all, but what is called a
design flaw. Programmers are very sensitive to the difference, since a bug means the
code is at fault (the program isn't doing what it was designed to do), and a design
flaw means it's the designer's fault (the code is doing exactly what was specified in
the design, but the design was wrong or inadequate). In the case of the millennium
bug, of course, the code was designed to use two-digit years, and that's precisely
what it's doing. The problem comes if computers misread the two-digit numbers 00, 01, et cetera. Should these be seen as 1900 and 1901, or as 2000 and 2001?
Two-digit dates were used originally to save space, since computer memory and disk
storage were prohibitively expensive. The designers who chose to specify these twodigit "bugs" were not stupid, and perhaps they were not even wrong. By some
estimates, the savings accrued by using two-digit years will have outweighed the
entire cost of fixing the code for the year 2000.
But Y2K did not even begin its existence as a design flaw. Up until the mid-1980s almost 30 years after two-digit years were first put into use - what we now call Y2K
would have been called an "engineering trade-off," and a good one. A trade-off: To
get something you need, you give up something else you need less urgently; to get
more space on disk and in memory, you give up the precision of the century
indicators. Perfectly reasonable. The correct decision. The surest sign of its
correctness is what happened next: Two-digit years went on to have a long,
successful life as a "standard." Computer systems could not work without standards an agreement among programs and systems about how they will exchange
information. Dates flowed from program to program, system to system, from tape to
memory to paper, and back to disk - it all worked just fine for decades.
Though not for centuries, of course. The near immortality of computer software has
come as a shock to programmers. Ask anyone who was there: We never expected
this stuff to still be around.
Bug, design flaw, side effect, engineering trade-off - programmers have many names
for system defects, the way Eskimos have many words for snow. And for the same
reason: They're very familiar with the thing and can detect its fine gradations. To be
a programmer is to develop a carefully managed relationship with error. There's no
getting around it. You either make your accommodations with failure, or the work
will become intolerable. Every program has a bug; every complex system has its
blind spots. Occasionally, given just the right set of circumstances, something will fail
spectacularly. There is a Silicon Valley company, formerly called Failure Analysis
(now Exponent), whose business consists of studying system disasters. The
company's sign used to face the freeway like a warning to every technical person
heading north out of Silicon Valley: Failure Analysis.
No one simply accepts the inevitability of errors - no honest programmer wants to
write a bug that will bring down a system. Both engineers and technical managers
have continually looked for ways to normalize the process, to make it more reliable,
predictable - schedulable, at the very least. They have talked perennially about
certification programs, whereby programmers would have to prove minimal
proficiency in standard skills. They have welcomed the advent of reusable software
components, or "objects," because components are supposed to make programming
more accessible, a process more like assembling hardware than proving a
mathematical theorem. They've tried elaborate development methodologies. But the
work of programming has remained maddeningly undefinable, some mix of
mathematics, sculpting, scrupulous accounting, and wily, ingenious plumbing.
In the popular imagination, the programmer is a kind of traveler into the unknown,
venturing near the margin of mind and meatspace. Maybe. For moments. On some
extraordinary projects, sometimes - a new operating system, a newly conceived
class of software. For most of us, though, programming is not a dramatic
confrontation between human and machine; it's a confused conversation with
programmers we will never meet, a frustrating wrangle with some other
programmer's code.
"January 1 is a Saturday. So if the world comes to an end for a couple
of days, it'll be OK. We've all had weekends like that." - Reed Hundt,
former FCC chair
"One guy in our office keeps a wooden head at the top of his cube the God of Debugging. He makes offerings to it daily." - Maurice
Doucet, director of engineering at MetaCreations
Most modern programming is done through what are called application programming
interfaces, or APIs. Your job is to write some code that will talk to another piece of
code in a narrowly defined way using the specific methods offered by the interface,
and only those methods. The interface is rarely documented well. The code on the
other side of the interface is usually sealed in a proprietary black box. And below
that black box is another, and below that another - a receding tower of black boxes,
each with its own errors. You can't envision the whole tower, you can't open the
boxes, and what information you've been given about any individual box could be
wrong. The experience is a little like looking at a madman's electronic bomb and
trying to figure out which wire to cut. You try to do it carefully but sometimes things
blow up.
At its core, programming remains irrational - a time-consuming, painstaking, errorstalked process, out of which comes a functional but flawed piece of work. And it
most likely will remain so as long as we are using computers whose basic design
descends from Eniac, a machine constructed to calculate the trajectory of artillery
shells. A programmer is presented with a task that a program must accomplish. But
it is a task as a human sees it: full of unexpressed knowledge, implicit associations,
allusions to allusions. Its coherence comes from knowledge structures deep in the
body, from experience, memory. Somehow all this must be expressed in the
constricted language of the API, and all of the accumulated code must resolve into a
set of instructions that can be performed by a machine that is, in essence, a giant
calculator. It shouldn't be surprising if mistakes are made.
There is irrationality at the core of programming, and there is irrationality
surrounding it from without. Factors external to the programmer - the whole
enterprise of computing, its history and business practices - create an atmosphere in
which flaws and oversights are that much more likely to occur.
The most irrational of all external factors, the one that makes the experience of
programming feel most insane, is known as "aggressive scheduling." Whether
software companies will acknowledge it or not, release schedules are normally driven
by market demand, not the actual time it would take to build a reasonably robust
system. The parts of the development process most often foreshortened are two
crucial ones: design documentation and testing. I recently went to a party where a
senior consultant - a woman who has been in the business for some 30 years,
someone who founded and sold a significant software company - was explaining why
she would no longer work with a certain client. She had presented a software
development schedule to the client, who received it, read it, then turned it back to
her, asking if she'd remake the schedule so that it took exactly half the time. There
were many veteran programmers in the room; they nodded along in weary
Even if programmers were given rational development schedules, the systems they
work on are increasingly complex, patched together - and incoherent. Systems have
become something like Russian nesting dolls, with newer software wrapped around
older software, which is wrapped around software that is older yet. We've come to
see that code doesn't evolve; it accumulates.
A young Web company founder I know - very young; Scott Hassan of eGroups.com suggests that all programs should be replaced every two years. He's probably right.
It would be a great relief to toss all our old code into that trash container where we
dumped the computer we bought a couple of years ago. Maybe on the Web we can
constantly replenish our code: The developer never lets go of the software; it sits
there on the server available for constant change, and the users have no choice but
to take it as it comes.
But software does not follow Moore's Law, doubling its power every 18 months. It's
still the product of a handworked craft, with too much meticulous effort already put
into it. Even eGroups.com, founded only nine months ago, finds itself stuck with code
programmers have no time to redo. Said Carl Page, another of its founders, "We're
living with code we wish we'd done better the first time."
"Debugging had to be discovered. I can remember the exact instant
when I realized that a large part of my life from then on was going to
be spent finding mistakes in my own programs." - Maurice Wilkes,
creator of the Edsac and consultant to Olivetti Research Lab
"Trust the computer industry to shorten 'Year 2000' to 'Y2K.' It was
this kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place." anonymous Net wisdom
The problem of old code is many times worse in a large corporation or a government
office, where whole subsystems may have been built 20 or 30 years ago. Most of the
original programmers are long gone, taking their knowledge with them - along with
the programmers who followed them, and ones after that. The code, a sort of
palimpsest by now, becomes difficult to understand. Even if the company had the
time to replace it, it's no longer sure of everything the code does. So it is kept
running behind wrappers of newer code - so-called middleware, or quickly developed
user interfaces like the Web - which keeps the old code running, but as a fragile,
precious object. The program runs, but is not understood; it can be used, but not
modified. Eventually, a complex computer system becomes a journey backward
through time. Look into the center of the most slick-looking Web banking site, built a
few months ago, and you're bound to see a creaky database running on an aged
Adding yet more complexity are the electronic connections that have been built
between systems: customers, suppliers, financial clearinghouses, whole supply
chains interlinking their systems. One patched-together wrapped-up system
exchanges data with another patched-together wrapped-up system - layer upon
layer of software involved in a single transaction, until the possibility of failure
increases exponentially.
It's from deep in there - somewhere near the middle-most Russian doll in the
innermost layer of software - that the millennium bug originates. One system sends
it on to the next, along with the many bugs and problems we already know about,
and the untold numbers that remain to be discovered. One day - maybe when we
switch to the new version of the Internet Protocol, or when some router somewhere
is replaced - one day the undiscovered bugs will come to light and we'll have to
worry about each of them in turn. The millennium bug is not unique; it's just the flaw
we see now, the most convincing evidence yet of the human fallibility that lives
inside every system.
It's hard to overstate just how common bugs are. Every week, the computer trade
paper InfoWorld prints a little box called "The Bug Report," showing problems in
commonly used software, some of them very serious. And the box itself is just a
sampling from www.bugnet.com, where one day's search for bugs relating to
"security" yielded a list of 68 links, many to other lists and to lists of links, reflecting
what may be thousands of bugs related to this keyword alone. And that's just the
ones that are known about and have been reported.
If you think about all the things that can go wrong, it'll drive you crazy. So technical
people, who can't help knowing about the fragility of systems, have had to find some
way to live with what they know. What they've done is develop a normal sense of
failure, an everyday relationship with potential disaster.
One approach is to ignore all thoughts about the consequences - to stay focused on
the code on your desk. This is not that difficult to do, since programmers get high
rewards for spending large amounts of time in front of a computer workstation,
where they're expected to maintain a very deep and narrow sort of concentration. A
few months ago, I talked to a systems programmer who'd barely looked over the top
of his cubicle for 30 years. He'd spent half that time working in the Federal Reserve
System, backbone of the world banking order everyone fears will collapse come the
millennium. But until he joined the Fed's Y2K project, he had never much considered
the real-world effects of his work. "I read an article about how the Federal Reserve
would crash everything if it went bad," said the man I'll call Jim Fuller, who agreed to
talk only on condition of anonymity. "It was the first time in my life I understood
everything the Federal Reserve did." He'd taken a rare look up and down the supply
chain; the job of fixing Y2K in the context of an enormous, linked economic machine
was now a task that stretched out in all directions far beyond his control. It scared
him. "I discovered we were kind of important," he said uneasily.
If you can't stay focused on your code, another approach is to develop an odd sort of
fatalism, a dark, defensive humor in the face of all the things you know can go
wrong. Making fun of bugs is almost a sign of sophistication. It shows you know your
way around a real system, that you won't shy back when things really start to fall
apart. A friend of mine once worked as a software engineer at a Baby Bell. He liked
to tell people how everyone in the company was amazed to pick up a handset and
actually get a dial tone. It was almost a brag: Ha ha, my system's so screwed up you
wouldn't believe it.
Now here comes a problem that's no joke. Technical people can't help hearing about
the extreme consequences that will come down on the world if they don't find all the
places Y2K is hiding. And they simultaneously know that it is impossible to find all
the problems in any system, let alone in ones being used long beyond their useful
life spans. Programmers feel under siege, caught between the long-standing
knowledge of error and fragility they've learned to live with, and the sudden,
unrealistic pressure to fix everything.
"To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the right
program and almost the right program is like the difference between
lightning and a lightning bug. The difference is just a bug." - Danny
Hillis, in The Pattern on the Stone (1998)
"I am one of the culprits who created the problem. I used to write
those programs back in the '60s and '70s, and was so proud of the
fact that I was able to squeeze a few elements of space by not having
to put '19' before the year." - Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve chair
"Y2K is a sort of perverse payback from the universe for all the hasty and incomplete
development efforts over the last 10 years," said the Y2K testing lead for a midsize
brokerage. Also speaking on condition of anonymity, Lawrence Bell (a pseudonym)
said it like an I-told-you-so, a chance for him to get back at every programmer and
programming manager who ever sent him junky software.
Bell is a tall, impeccably groomed young man whose entire workday consists of
looking for bugs. He's in QA, quality assurance, the place where glitches are brought
to light, kept on lists, managed, prioritized, and juggled - a complete department
devoted to bugs. He has the tester's crisp manner, the precision of the quality
seeker, in whom a certain amount of obsessive fussiness is a very good thing. Since
Bell doesn't write code, and can't just concentrate on the program on his desk, he
has no alternative but to affect a jaunty, fake cheer in the face of everything that
can go wrong. "We have systems that have been developed in, shall we say, an
'uncontrolled' manner," he said.
The systems he's responsible for testing are classic journeys through time: new
systems on Windows NT with graphical user interfaces, Unix relational databases on
the sturdy client-server systems of the late '80s, command-line interfaces that were
in vogue in the late '70s and early '80s, all the way back to an IBM midrange
computer running programs "that nobody thinks about," said Bell, but "have to run
or we're in trouble."
Bell's team is doing what they call "clean management": testing everything for Y2K
problems, whether or not they suspect it has a date-related problem. In the course
of it, as they go backward in time, they're coming across systems that have never
been formally tested. "There was a day when things did not go through QA," said
Bell, as if he were talking about another century. All this time, the untested systems
have been out there, problems waiting to happen. "We find all sorts of functional
bugs," he said affably. "Not Y2K. Just big old bugs."
Bell had all the complaints testers always have. Missing source code. No
documentation. Third-party software vendors who won't give them information. Not
enough people who know how the systems were put together. Users who won't take
the time to explain how they work with the system. And what he calls the "ominous
task" of fixing one of the oldest, least documented systems - the crucial tradeclearing system running on the IBM machines. "If one of the midrange computers
goes down for a day, we're out of business without our backups," he said.
Still, quality assurance is the one place where the muddled side of computing is
obvious, predominant, inescapable. Bell, as a good QA guy, is mostly inured to it all.
"Come the year 2000, a couple of systems will fail," he said nonchalantly. "But that's
what happens with any implementation. It's the same thing we've been doing for
For Bell, it's no big deal that supposedly Y2K-compliant programs will be put into
users' hands without thorough testing. He's comfortable with the idea that things can
go very, very wrong and still not bring about the end of the world. Said Bell with a
shrug, "It's just a big user test."
"We used to have 'bugs for bucks' prizes, because toward the end of
debugging, the bugs get hard to find. We'd add $10 to the prize for
each bug found. But then people would hold off reporting one until
the price went up. It was an underground economy in bug reporting."
- Heidi Roizen, former VP of developer relations at Apple
The millennium bug is not unique - human fallibility lives inside every
The only thing about Y2K that was really bothering Lawrence Bell was the
programmers. There is a classic animosity between programmer and tester - after
all, the tester's role in life is to find everything the programmer did wrong. But Y2K
and its real-world time pressures seem to have escalated the conflict. Bell thought
that QA would manage - "it won't be pretty but we'll do it" - but no thanks to the
programmers who developed the applications. "The application folks are never
there," said Bell, deeply annoyed. "We're not getting analysis from the developers it's really absurd."
The source of the hostility is documentation: Programmers are supposed to make a
record of the code they've written. Documentation is how QA people know what the
system is supposed to do, and therefore how to test it. But programmers hate to
write documentation, and so they simply avoid doing it. "The turnover is high," said
Bell, "or the programmers who have been here a long time get promoted. They don't
want to go back to this project they wrote 10 years ago - and get punished for not
documenting it."
Programmers have fun and leave us to clean up their messes, is Bell's attitude. They
want to go off to new programs, new challenges, and the really annoying thing is,
they can. "They say, 'I want to do something new,'" said Bell, truly angry now, "and
they get away with it."
"No more programmers working without adult supervision!"
This was declaimed by Ed Yardeni, chief economist for Deutsche Bank Securities,
before a crowded hotel ballroom. On the opening day of the Year 2000 Symposium,
August 10, 1998 (with cameras from 60 Minutes rolling), Yardeni explained how the
millennium bug would bring about a world recession on the order of the 1973-74
downturn, and this would occur because the world's systems "were put together over
30 to 40 years without any adult supervision whatsoever." Blame the programmers.
The mood at the conference was like that of a spurned lover: All those coddled boys
in T-shirts and cool eyewear, formerly fetishized for their adolescent ways, have
betrayed us.
It has become popular wisdom to say that Y2K is the result of "shortsightedness."
It's a theme that has been taken up as a near moral issue, as if the people who
created the faulty systems were somehow derelict as human beings.
In fact, some of the most successful and long-lived technologies suffer from extreme
shortsightedness. The design of the original IBM PC, for example, assumed there
would never be more than one user, who would never be running more than one
program at a time, which would never see more than 256K of memory. The original
Internet protocol, IP, limited the number of server addresses it could handle to what
seemed a very large number at the time, never imagining the explosive growth of
the Web.
I once worked on a Cobol program that had been running for more than 15 years. It
was written before the great inflation of the late 1970s. By the time I saw it, in 1981,
the million-dollar figure in all dollar amounts was too large for the program's internal
storage format, and so multiple millions of dollars simply disappeared without a
We are surrounded by shortsighted systems. Right at this moment, some other
program is surely about to burst the bounds of its format for money or number of
shares traded or count of items sold. The Dow Jones Industrial Average will one day
break 10,000, the price of gas will top $9.99, the systems we're renovating now may
live long enough to need renovation again. Some system designer, reacting to the
scarce computer resource of our day - not memory but bandwidth - is specifying a
piece of code that we will one day look back on as folly.
At the Year 2000 Symposium where Yardeni spoke, there was a technical workshop
about creating a "time machine" - a virtual time environment for testing "fixed" Y2K
programs. One of the presenters, Carl Gehr of the Edge Information Group, patiently
explained that, when designing the test environment, "you have to specify an upper
limit" for the year. While everyone scribbled notes, an awful thought occurred to me.
"But what upper limit?" I said out loud. "Should we be worrying about the year
9000? 10,001?"
Gehr stopped talking, heads came up from their notes, and the room went quiet. It
was as if this were the first time, in all the rush to fix their systems, the attendees
had been able to stop, reflect, think about a faraway future. Finally, from the back of
the room came a voice: "Good question."
Things can go very, very wrong and still not be the end of the world.
Says Bell: "It's just a big user test."
Gehr glanced over at his colleague, Marilyn Frankel, who was waiting to talk about
temporary "fixes" for Y2K-affected code. "Marilyn will address that later, I'm sure,"
he said.
Ellen Ullman ([email protected]) is the author of Close to the Machine, a memoir that
draws on her 20 years as a programmer. She is a frequent contributor to Harper's,
Salon, and NPR.
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