A magazine about programmers, code, and society. Written by humans since 2018.

Gerald Weinberg

Some books are like mirrors. By that I mean that reading them involves a great deal of looking at oneself, both for praise and loathing. Taking a look back in time, reflecting on all those times we thought we were right and we were wrong, bringing back memories of times long gone, some of them painful, most hopefully fun and joyful.

“The Psychology of Computer Programming” is one of those. In every one of its chapters, Dr. Weinberg reflects on the human aspects of programming. It is, most probably, the first book ever written on the subject of the personality, the interactions and the characteristics of software developers. Let me be clear: this book has been written in 1971, and it has been continuously in print until at least the end of the twentieth century, for almost 30 years. This is the stuff of classics.

There has even been a reviewed “anniversary” edition published in 1999, but I bought a copy of the first edition of the book, and besides the delightful look and feel of the pages, representatives of the typography and design of the seventies, the structure, the flow and the discussion of this book make it stand in a class of its own, and represent a hallmark in our field.

Dr. Weinberg analyzes programming from both individual and collective points of view, including the issues of education, human resources management, and even programming language design. The author actually devotes a section of his book to explain how the design of a programming language impacts the readability and the subsequent maintainability (or lack thereof) of the programs written in it.

Sounds familiar?

Regarding team interactions, the author highlights the issues brought from scaling up programming teams: do small teams face the same issues as larger ones? How do communication patterns emerge and evolve? The author takes pleasure in debunking common myths and misconceptions, some of them still held today by managers all over the world: what are the factors that can cause a project to break down in pieces? The answers will surprise you, and you will wonder why nobody had ever told you to read this book first.

Dr. Weinberg also pays close attention to the individual characteristics of programmers. What defines a good programmer? Why do they take pride in their jobs? What kind of incentives should a company offer to their developers? Nice offices or challenging problems? (I think you can guess the answer to that last question.)

In the humble opinion of the author of these lines, software is primarily a social process, and only later a technical feat. Software is no more a technical product than a book is just a printed object. Software is the result of interactions among people, and as such it will reflect all the contradictions, the failures, the wonders and the joy of the people involved in it. Every single piece of software ever written by humans reflects the underlying moods, psyche and interactions of a group of people. As such, studying the psychology of a programmer yields naturally in a process in which, invariably, the software will be better at the end.

I once saw a joke on Twitter, saying that managing programmers was subject to Heisenberg’s Principle, in that observing programmers changes their behavior. I do not think it is a joke, for I believe that all social systems are, actually, quantum-like systems subject to this principle; the actions of the observer will invariably alter the behavior of the observed. And that is OK, as far as I am concerned. If managers are conscious of this fact, and if they can use this to their advantage, they will be able to build sustainable teams.

Maybe Dr. Weinberg took some inspiration from Melvin Conway, who in 1967 stated that “organizations design systems mirroring their own communication structures”. Now you start to understand why your microservice architecture is a mess, and no, neither Istio nor Prometheus is going to help you with that.

Finally, regarding recruiting: we all know how hard it is to find and recruit software developers, yet I am appalled to see how many companies do as much as they can to destroy the teams they spent so much time and money to build. Why is this? I can only recommend all human resources managers, all project managers, and all developers as well, to get a copy of this book and, as I said at the beginning of this chapter, to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror. We all need a little bit of introspection, and Dr. Weinberg can help.

Legacy buzzword warning: this book is mostly accessible to general audiences, but there are a few sections where the author assumes a certain experience with programming languages, compilers, hardware design or even project management; and in some cases, with the 1971 versions of those.

Cover photo by the author.

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