The men and women who have changed our world
Coding is what, exactly? Those who do it often talk about “writing” code, and for a while in the 1980s, a group of programmers had informal meetings with members of the Writers’ Union of Canada. Our conversations were fascinating (I personally learned a lot about computing), but ultimately our two professions were too dissimilar for a single union.
Three decades later, the differences are even more profound. Computers are everywhere, and everything is computerized. Yet many of us know curiously little about the men and women who tell our machines what to do. We may resort to the cliché of the loner nerd with the one-track mind — brilliant with algorithms but ill at ease talking about them. According to Clive Thompson, however, coders are better described as a priestly class of insiders that includes self-taught hackers and college-trained computer scientists. Together, they are the new iteration of the math genius living in plain sight next door.
For those of us not in the know, or who don’t know the neighbours, software can seem esoteric and abstruse. Thompson writes against the grain of such attitudes, treating software as something as common as crabgrass. He underscores the point with good reason: code is ubiquitous, we are surrounded by it, we need to understand it and its consequences better. What we often forget — and should remember — is that every piece of code was, indeed, written by someone.
Coders begins with Ruchi Sanghvi, a twenty-three-year-old who “rewrote the world with a single software update” in 2006, after she was hired as Facebook’s first female software engineer. Raised in India, Sanghvi attended college in the United States, where she was introduced to coding. She arrived on the job market at a time when experienced coders were dismissing Facebook as a fad, making it difficult for Mark Zuckerberg to attract talent. It was whip-smart Sanghvi — two years Zuckerberg’s senior and able to thrive among Harvard dropouts in a frat-house environment — who came up with the initially disliked but now iconic News Feed.
Focusing on character as much as the skills and accomplishments of programmers like Sanghvi, Thompson shows us how coding attracts both loners and puzzle solvers, people who can combine an understanding of computers with the ability to write code. They are not all rare geniuses, of course. While some are the genuine article, Thompson explains, the vast majority are not. Even so, they are “among the most quietly influential people on the planet.”
Coders is more than a lively collection of contemporary profiles. It’s a portrait of the profession that introduces us to the whiz kids of today as well as the people who started it all. It’s a revelation to learn that the first line of code was written by Ada Lovelace in the 1840s; that Grace Hopper created the first “compiler” program and developed the “FLOW‑MATIC” language for non-technical business people; and that Adele Goldberg was the co-creator of the influential early language Smalltalk. In Canada, Gwen Braithwaite was one of the first programmers hired in the early 1960s. Her future employers questioned her qualifications when she scored in the 99th percentile on coding aptitude, but they still hired her. “I had it easy,” she said later. “The computer didn’t care that I was a woman or that I was black. Most women had it much harder.” The fact that women actually dominated the profession for the first two decades challenges many of the stereotypes we have about technology and gender.
Yes, women were there at the outset, starting with the surveillance work done by MI6 during the Second World War. As programming was seen as secretarial work, it was automatically handed off to women who translated and transcribed enemy communications at Bletchley Park. The main action was assumed to be the machinery, so the men occupied themselves with the mechanics (until one of them figured out where the real challenges were). Later on, women worked as programmers for large companies like IBM and for NASA, participating in the Apollo missions to the moon. Thompson shows how this all happened in the first two of four distinct periods of code’s early evolution.
The second period, which covers the 1960s and ’70s, was the era of hackers who viewed code as a form of personal artistic expression. The third wave occurred in the ’80s, when teenagers discovered video games, and computers became a way to interact with the outside world. This period was pivotal in other ways. In 1983, for example, women constituted 37 percent of the coder population. Twenty-five years later, the share had dropped to 17 percent. Having laid the foundation of the profession, women were chased out and replaced by a cadre of white men.
Coding’s fourth stage — the Silicon Valley era — is still with us. But what’s notable is how much of the field’s evolution has occurred in basement bedrooms and public libraries, undertaken by non-professionals outside of the academy (and beyond the Bay Area). These are enthusiasts working against the odds, which is something of a common conceit among coders. As one of them, Rob Spectre, describes it, “The distance between looking like a genius and looking like an idiot in programming? It’s one character wide.”
Not long ago, software and programming were foreign concepts to most people. Today there are degrees to be had in computer science and countless tech-related jobs. Coding skills are in demand, and high-tech industries ride the waves of fortune. Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook operate the most far-reaching, lucrative, and powerful monopolies in history, all aided and abetted by the internet and running on code.
“Producing a book always feels more like piloting a boat across a foggy lake,” Thompson says in Coders, comparing it to programming, which he did early on. “Coding gave me precisely that sense of linear, regular achievement. Writing rarely did.” When you get down to it, of course, coding is less about writing something new than about flushing out the bugs in what already exists. It’s often unglamorous and pedantic work — a given when you are dealing with computer code, the ultimate pedant. But for those able to “derive a tremendous sense of joy from an incredibly small moment of success,” as Thompson’s friend Max Whitney says, it is deeply rewarding. It is also deeply consequential.
Personal computers are now more common than cars, and many millions carry smartphones around in their pockets. The cultural embrace of technology enabled by the internet has transformed public and private space, and Coders raises the curtain on the faltering discussion about technology, human culture, and the public good.
Books like Coders, which deal with technical subjects in accessible ways, are rare gems that are increasingly important for public policy discussions. A seasoned journalist and a columnist for Wired, Thompson has crafted the ultimate backgrounder for such debates — one that illuminates the complexities involved in understanding the role high tech plays in shaping our communities and introduces us to the individual coders who, in this tale, are the master mariners navigating the netherworld that we experience but cannot see. It’s a foggy lake indeed. And we should encourage Clive Thompson to pilot more boats across it.