Exploring the strange and hazy days before nerds ruled the earth, tech writer Steve Lohr's Go To: The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Maverick Scientists and Iconoclasts--The Programmers Who Created the Software Revolution
is a great introduction to the softer side of the Information Age. Sure, he covers the Microsoft and Apple stories, but he also digs deeply to learn how Fortran and COBOL were developed and ventures into the open-source world. Lohr is adept at personalising the process of software development, which serves to make some of the business and technical decisions more comprehensible to the lay reader.
IBM conducted yearly employee reviews called the "Performance Improvement Program" or Pip, for short. The Pip, like most such programs today, followed a rigid formula, with numbers and rankings. [John] Backus decided the Pip system was ill suited for measuring the performance of his programmers, so his approach was to mostly ignore it. One afternoon, for example, he called Lois Haibt over for a chat. He talked about her work, said she had been doing an excellent job and then pushed a small piece of paper across the desk saying, "This is your new salary," a pleasing raise, as Haibt recalled. As she got up to leave, Backus mentioned in passing, "In case anyone should ask, this was your Pip."
Since he starts early in the history of the field, Lohr gets to share some of the oddities of the days before programming was professionalised. Developers were kids, musicians, game experts, and practically anyone who showed an interest. Many readers will be surprised and delighted to read of the strong recruitment of women and their many contributions to software development--an aspect of geek history, which has long been neglected. Go To should break down a few preconceptions while building up a new respect for the coders who guided us into the 21st century. --Rob Lightner
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From Publishers Weekly
About a year too late to take advantage of public hunger for behind-the-scenes computer biz accounts, New York Times technology correspondent Lohr's learned narrative never quite engages the reader. A series of portraits describes the unique band of outsiders who commanded the lumbering, room-sized computers of the postwar era. These men played a headache-inducing game called "blind chess," built their own stereos and could detect a computer malfunction by sound. The book kicks off in the 1950s at IBM, where several of these visionaries were trying to make the company's computers more efficient. Men like John Backus (one is tempted to call him the Henry Ford of programming) created the Fortran assembly language to automate and make the programming process more efficient. With increased business interest in computers in the late 1950s, John McCarthy, who cofounded MIT's artificial intelligence lab in 1959, initiated Cobol, or Common Business Oriented Language, to allow people to program using English. After the 1960s, software started getting more headlines from an industry and a press that previously only cared about new and faster hardware. By the 1980s, companies like Microsoft were creating business empires out of programming. For a book that claims to tell the story of the software revolution's instigators, it's frustratingly short on characterization. There's the occasional flourish, like the description of Charles Simonyi who did groundbreaking work at Xerox's PARC research facility and essentially created Microsoft Word showing up for debugging sessions in a special "debugging outfit": a black net shirt and translucent skin-tight black pants. But this account of reputed fringe visionaries lacks flash and loopiness. National author tour.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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