Does it already happen to you that a book is so good that you can’t stop read it? I’ve experienced it a few times. For H2G2, the Lord Of the Rings or the Dark Tower for example. But for the first time it happens with an IT book: The Computer Boys Take Over.
Why it resonates with me: the short story
What’s the Software Crisis? Is it old? Why do we have so few women in IT? Why our job is still not understood? Why are we often in conflict with middle management? These questions are very recurrent in our industry. I heard them a lot in many conferences and blog posts. This book provides answers, or at least good insights about the roots of these problems.
Did you learn about IT history at school? I didn’t, and that’s a shame. Learning about the first decades of our industry (roughly 1950-1980) is full of lessons. Many of us believe that our job is mature. It isn’t. Our job exists since less than one Human life, and the computer industry is undergoing a fast-paced evolution. Most of us didn’t even remember what happens ten years ago. It would be both pretentious and dangerous to suppose that our industry is mature. This book does describe the beginning of IT, and shows clearly that the software evolution hasn’t happened yet. The fundamentals problems we had 30 years ago (projects running over time and budget, low quality, unmanageable software employees, lack of resources…) are still relevant today. I would even argue that it’s more relevant today than 30 years ago, because of the explosion of personal soft devices.
The coders diversity
The book explains well how we (deliberately or not) build a male oriented industry. From the lack of consideration of the first developers (women programming the ENIAC) to the IBM PAT (Programmer Aptitude Test) ravages and the will to overcome the “lack of software developers”, we have all the keys to understand how and why women were not welcome for such a long time (of course we’re not the only industry to suffer this problem, which is not a reason for ignoring it).
The challenge for the management
Since I’ve started to work as a professional, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with middle management and huge hierarchies. I just feel like it’s a waste, and I can’t understand the fact that “Excel-Managers” do need to express their authority on me. And by the way, how can they have authority on me without understanding what I’m doing? I read a lot of stuff about the “Y-generation” and experts trying to explain this fact. But this book also provides potential answers: what if software does remove the need for middle management from the classical Taylorist understanding of work? That would definitely create tensions between the middle managers and the software developers. That would also explain why it’s important for these managers to keep developers in a code monkey position. “Please code, don’t think. We are here to think and manage, you are here to code and obey.”
The representation of developers
Another discussion that I often have with other passionate developers is the lack of representation of our job. Should we create a union? An association? Who could have the legitimacy for that? Another question that this book tackles. It explains that this was already asked a few decades ago. That’s what lead to the creation of the ACM (Association For Computing Machinery) and the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer). Most of us don’t know about them, and these associations have historical points of conflicts between the “pragmatic business programmers” and the “scientist software engineers”.
Software is hard to do
This book gave me many insights, and if you are a regular reader of this blog, you will probably recognize how it influences my recent thoughts about software. It helped me to have a deeper understanding of our industry, better than any other book before. Like always, I have now even more questions, which is the proof that this book is a must read for anybody with the will to understand the past in order to improve the future of the software industry.
PS: If you are wondering why such a great book has a title that may look sexist, please understand it is ironic. It highlights the fact that for many decades, these bunch of unmanageable weirdo nerds were referred as the “Computer Boys” (usually with a pejorative connotation).