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Developer divide: 19 generations of computer programmers

Peter Wayner | Jan. 8, 2013
If you're searching for a fountain of youth, the easiest way to get that feeling of continual rebirth is to hang around a few tech product launches. Every new rollout comes with the fresh, unabashed feeling that this has never been done before. Ever.

Social media strategy: Joining the right country club

Other career choice: Advertising

Clothing: Dark flannel suit

Rhetorical tic: "They say there's a need for five computers, but I think doubling or tripling that estimate would be more accurate."

Car: Oldsmobile

Song: Ella Fitzgerald's "Mack the Knife"

Favorite artifact: Wreath made of punch cards

Space Shuttle programmers

This crew just retired with the Space Shuttle. During their years, they worked with 8086 chips and kept the shuttles running by searching eBay for replacement hardware. The Space Shuttle computers may not have had much memory, but they traveled farther and faster than all of the biggest mainframes or fanciest racks.

Language of choice: Assembly code

Special skill: Remembering which register is already swapped to RAM

Social media strategy: Logged into Facebook once last year; has friended spouse and two neighbors

Other career choice: Disco lighting designer

Clothing: Leisure suits

Rhetorical tic: "If we don't do it, the Russians will win."

Car: Cadillac Eldorado

Song: Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon"

Favorite artifact: 8086 chip

Cray programmers

There was a time when the fastest computers were built by a relatively small company run by an enigmatic genius who spent his off-hours digging tunnels in his basement. That's a true fact about Seymour Cray, the genius who built the first generation of machines designed for big data sets and complicated mathematical analysis.

Language of choice: Cray's automatically vectorizing Fortran

Special skill: Knowing how to set up loops so that the Fortran compiler could vectorize them

Social media strategy: Going to the boss's July 4 BBQ and the company holiday party this year

Other career choice: NASA rocket scientist

Clothing: Short-sleeve white shirt with pocket protector

Rhetorical tic: "It's a classified project supported by the DoD."

Car: Nondescript sedan that blends into the NSA parking lot

Song: Wendy Carlos and Benjamin Folkman's "Switched-On Bach"

Favorite artifact: Cray sitting in the National Cryptographic Museum outside Fort Meade

Cobol programmers

The first big adopters of computers never would have succeeded without a simple mechanism for writing software that supported the core business. Cobol was the first great tool for writing what the enterprise programmers call "business logic."

Other language of choice: Fortran

Special skill: Trying to keep on using self-modifying code like ALTER X TO PROCEED TO Y

Social media strategy: Sends out Christmas cards printed on paper

Other career choice: Stereo designer

Clothing: Tracksuit left over from an early morning mall walk

Rhetorical tic: "It's cool."

Car: Honda Civic

Song: Gillian Hills, "Zou Bisou Bisou"

Favorite artifact: Something signed by Grace Hopper

Basic programmers

It was first invented to help Dartmouth students learn how to write endless loops, but it became the dominant language of the early personal computer generation when Bill Gates released Microsoft Basic. All of the early games and software for the PCs were written in Basic. Today it lives on as Visual Basic, a popular language for anyone using the .Net platform.


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