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I'm an engineering manager at Braintree. I write about politics, psychology, and software.

I've worked on a few open-source projects and infrequently blog.

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The Computer Boys Take Over by Nathan Ensmenger

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The Computer Boys Take Over by Nathan Ensmenger

13 November 2018

Most history, from the high drama of Thucydides to the folk history of, say, the computing industry, focuses on the highlights and the standouts: the Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerbergs. In The Computer Boys Take Over, Nathan Ensmenger does the opposite - he tells the story of the emergence of the computer industry through the anonymous legions of men and women working as programmers, coders, system designers and so on. The result is less a gripping narrative than a comprehensive account of how software development came to occupy the social, financial and professional status it has today.

The Computer Boys offers excellent explanations for questions like:

  • How and why did programming switch from being a feminine-coded activity to a masculine-coded activity?
  • What are the origins of the split between academic computer science and industrial software development?
  • Why are professional societies for programmers such as the ACM so much less powerful than equivalents in other professions, such as the AMA and bar association?
  • Why are there so many words for people who write software - coders, programmers, developers, software engineers - and why is there so much baggage attached to them?

Ensmenger’s answer - which is convincing - is that early practitioners in computing in general and software development in particular were slowly but continuously engaged in a struggle for professional identity and legitimacy, and that the effects of this struggle continue to shape the profession today.

Specifically, as it became more obvious that programming was a difficult, creative task which required the sustained focus of a large, talented group of people, programmers came to understand themselves as more than mere technicians. The eternal shortage of talented programmers, which began as early as the early 50s, gave the emerging professionals financial clout, and the well-known difficulty of managing software projects gave them organizational power. To Ensmenger, the questions raised above are fallout from the particular ups and downs of this overarching story. The Computer Boys, then, is a play-by-play account of how, by the end of the 60s, programmers had succeeded in making programming into a profession.

Ensmenger completely succeeded in convincing me that his approach is the right way to answer the questions raised above. That said, The Computer Boys is dry and pretty long, in part because it often repeats the same quotes and anecdotes several times in different contexts. It’s more of a book you’re happy to have read than a book you enjoy reading.

Despite that, my biggest complaint is actually that The Computer Boys Take Over ends a decade too soon. Ensmenger’s narrative only really covers through the end of the 60s, by which point programmers have achieved professional legitimacy but not really “taken over” anything. Yet the emergence of the coder-turned-CEO, as embodied particularly in Bill Gates, was just around the corner. (Not to focus too much on one company, but Microsoft was founded in 1975 and isn’t mentioned a single time in the book.) Despite giving the book such a compelling title, Ensmenger stops right before the march of programming professionalization reached its logical conclusion.

There are some highlights, though. My favorite moments in the The Computer Boys were the glimpses into how early programmers reacted to the two big questions of professional software development: what kind of activity is programming and what is the right way to organize programmers? Today I can take the view that programming is something altogether new - neither art nor science, and that organizing programmers along the lines of either a factory or a commune is likely to fail. But in the 50s they didn’t know that, and the ideas they came up with while figuring it out are fascinating and illuminating.

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