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Charles Petzold

How do you start learning about computers? The opinions about this particular subject have a cardinality close to the number of computer scientists or IT professionals on the planet. Everyone will have their own opinion, but a single book published in 2000 might have helped everyone reach an agreement, and that is no small feat.

Charles Petzold was the first and foremost evangelizer of Windows technology at the end of the 1980s, on the other side of the street of (and with a slightly more technical tone than) Guy Kawasaki. The fact that he has (or at least had) a tattooed Windows Logo on his right arm should tell you something.

In his own words:

I acquired my first IBM PC in early 1984 and began writing for PC Magazine that same year. This led to a full-time freelance career that included writing for Microsoft Systems Journal and MSDN magazines.

His 2000 book “Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software” published by Microsoft Press (a second edition of which was released in 2022) deserves its own Wikipedia page and many reads and re-reads. It has been widely praised as a classic in the field, and it is about time that we dedicate a few words to this masterpiece in this magazine, too.

However, we will not dive in the usual review of its contents or style because a lot has been written about it, including a quote by Jeff Atwood I wholeheartedly agree with:

I also own Charles Petzold’s book, Code. It’s another love letter to the computer.

(And no, I do not always agree with what Jeff says, but when I do, it is with all my heart.)

I bought my copy at the bookstore of the Microsoft TechEd Europe (the predecessor of the Microsoft Ignite series of events) in Barcelona, in July 2003, among other books that I still have on my shelves.

The cover says it all. The word “Code”, spelled in Braille, Morse, ASCII, and Latin script. An invitation to many different places, all at once, in a single 400-page volume.

I remember starting reading it as soon as I got back to my hotel that night, unable to keep my eyes off it for the duration of the event (outside the conference sessions, of course!) As a self-taught software developer, one who would complete a university degree only five years later, the discovery of this book opened my eyes to many aspects of computing beyond programming that I was not aware of.

(Maybe the fact that I clicked with Petzold’s writing style so much is that, according to his own biography, he also had a “a self-taught education in digital electronics”)

In the humble opinion of this author, “Code” remains the authoritative book to recommend to anyone asking themselves the question: “how do computers work?” To this day, there is no other written work that provides a better answer to that question than this one.

Is it complete? No, of course not. Is it relevant? Absolutely. Is it illustrated? Please. Is it fun? Hell yes.

In particular, and dear to my own passion for computer history, Mr. Petzold provides all the references (back to the 19th century) to explain why and how the computer came to be the way it is. These references are not only technical (including snippets of code in Assembly and Algol whenever necessary) but also scientific (with the required introduction to Boolean logic, circuitry, etc.)

All in all, “Code” is a timeless gem that will remain one of the greatest contributions of Charles Petzold to our field. Because if it were the only one, it would be enough already, but his 2008 “Annotated Turing” book deserves a separate entry. And this is without mentioning the long list of books about Windows, OS/2, C#, and even Windows Phone (!) that he published during his 34-year illustrious career as a technical writer.

If you are a young person interested in the (slowly waning) craft of software engineering, start with this book, and then read Steve McConnell’s “Code Complete”. Both titles published by Microsoft Press, both bearing similar names, and both equally useful and enjoyable, even decades after their publication. Because our craft is reaching a point of stability in its evolution, and there are quite a few timeless truths worthy of attention, despite what the hype mongers would like you to believe.

Cover photo by the author.

Continue reading Issue 066: Version Control or go back to Issue 067: Text Editors. Did you like this article? Consider subscribing to our newsletter or contributing to the sustainability of this magazine. Thanks!
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