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Great Programmers Answer Questions From Aspiring Student 347

NathanBFH writes "Many of the questions that make it to the Ask Slashdot pages come from young and aspiring programmers wanting to know the role math and education play in the profession, or what makes certain programmers so much more productive than others, or what the future of the craft will look like. One young programmer by the name of Jarosaw "sztywny" Rzeszótko decided to ask these types of questions (and more) to the programmers he admired the most who also, it turns out, happen to be some of the most influential computer scientists and programmers of the last several decades. The result? Most of them happily responded. The results include the following: Linus Torvalds (Linux), Bjarne Stroustrup (C++), James Gosling (Java), Tim Bray (XML, Atom), Guido Van Rossum (Python), Dave Thomas (Pragmatic Programmer), David Heinemeier Hansson (Rails Framework), and Googlers Steve Yegge and Peter Norvig."
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Great Programmers Answer Questions From Aspiring Student

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  • Ada nuff said.
    • Re:ADA (Score:5, Funny)

      by jrumney ( 197329 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @08:06AM (#16376325)
      She might have some difficulty answering the questions though, what with being dead for the last 154 years.
      • by gkhan1 ( 886823 )
        Hey, Donald Knuth has been dead since 2003 [] and he's still writing books!
        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward
          Has anybody else noticed that Knuth [] looks like Yoda?
          • OMG!!... paint him green and he'd be a ringer...

            Though, it is Knuth after all... when it comes to CS he pretty much is one with the force

  • what? (Score:3, Funny)

    by darkchubs ( 814225 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @07:40AM (#16376163)
    I'm suprised they didnt say "go into sales kid".
  • by muttoj ( 572791 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @07:40AM (#16376165)
    What makes a programmer great? The software they produce? The influence they have in the markt? The money they earn?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Kranfer ( 620510 )
      Personally, I believe it is their creative ability to solve the problem at hand in new and innovative ways. But thats just me.
      • by b1ufox ( 987621 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @08:19AM (#16376399) Homepage Journal
        Well new and innovative ways are just one part of it.

        It is the ability to choose a very simple and elegant solution from a wide possibility of solutions available, which makes a progammer great.The situation may require choosing a little cumbersome solution but mostly its the simple ones.

        programming as such doesnot definetly mean mastering a language.

        tools, language are of no use if you are a horrible programmer.

        People like Brian Kenighan, Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thomson are people who are a perfect example of what a great programmer is. The simplicity of C, Unix and family is a concrete example of what a simple solution can do.

      • I'd have to agree with you there. I also find that it's the ability to use your language of choice to solve a problem in an efficient and innovative way. Just like speaking any foriegn language fluently...sort of.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          I'd say that you should be able to use any language, even one that you despise, or one that you have never ever heard of before, to solve your problem in an efficient and innovative way.

          There's a difference between knowing how to program and knowing a language. If you really know how to program, then learning a new language basically amounts to finding a syntax reference for that language.
    • I'd pick #1 and #2 if you replaced "markt" by "other programmers" in #2.
    • by porkThreeWays ( 895269 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:45AM (#16377127)
      I noticed a commonality in some of their answers. More I guess the way they answered them. When they didn't know an answer, they said "I don't know". I think the ability to admit you actually don't know the answer to something is very important. How many actors, salesman, or politicians have you ever heard use those words? Not too many!
      • by Furmy ( 854336 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:59AM (#16377269)
        How many actors, salesman, or politicians have you ever heard use those words?

        I don't know.
        Good point, though.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by TapeCutter ( 624760 )
        That's a "test" I have used when interviewing programmers in the past, drill down on some esoteric crap until they say "I don't know", bonus points for saying "I would have to look it up". Bullshit answers means the interview will be short.

        You don't have to know everything to use this test, every programmer carries several API's around in their head that they used last week or whatever, thing is: it's unusual for two programmers to carry the same API's at the same time.
  • by LiquidCoooled ( 634315 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @07:42AM (#16376183) Homepage Journal
    or what makes certain programmers so much more productive than others

    The most productive programmers have pointed at in their hosts file.
  • no Knuth ? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dario_moreno ( 263767 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @07:49AM (#16376217) Journal
    without Donald Knuth this list is *SO* incomplete.
    • Re:no Knuth ? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Bitsy Boffin ( 110334 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @07:54AM (#16376247) Homepage
      Knuth doesn't use e-mail, so probably why not included.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by nkv ( 604544 )
      Also, he forgot to ask Eric Raymond. The guy who wrote "How to be a hacker"! Man...
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Reverend528 ( 585549 )
      To quote donald knuth: "Who are you? What are you doing in my house?" [].
    • by amelith ( 920455 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @08:49AM (#16376639) Homepage
      No, without Godel it's incomplete but if you included him it would be inconsistent.

    • by gkhan1 ( 886823 )
      My thoughts exactly! They didn't even mention The Art of Computer Programming when asked what their favorite books on computer programming was (although I smiled when Torvalds said "Operating Systems: Design and Implementation" by Andy Tanenbaum). With the possible exception of Gödel, Escher, Bach (which isn't really about computers anyway), it has to be the greatest work on algorithms and programming ever written.
    • by Tyler Durden ( 136036 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @10:00AM (#16377279)
      Knuth is great for his theoretical work, but I don't know if he'd rank up there as an important programmer. Although I suppose someone could make an argument for it based on his work on TeX.

      The real great programmers omissions I see are Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie. It's hard to top creating the most influencial programming language and the most influential OS of all time. (C and Unix, obviously).

      When it comes to the OS, Thompson would be a thousand times more interesting to talk to than Torvalds.
  • by AEton ( 654737 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @07:49AM (#16376221)
    I hear he's really approachable [] in person.
  • One young programmer by the name of Jarosaw "sztywny" Rzeszótko decided to ask these types of questions (and more) to the programmers he admired the most who also, it turns out, happen to be some of the most influential computer scientists and programmers of the last several decades.

    He asks such age-old questions as, "Why am I forced to learn the LISP programming language? Seriously? What the hell? I can program in C just fine."
    • Re:a sample (Score:5, Funny)

      by AEton ( 654737 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @08:00AM (#16376275)

        (why? (am (forced 'I (to-learn (language (programming 'the-LISP))))))
        (what? 'the-hell)
        (can 'I (program (in 'C) 'just-fine)

      Fixed that for you.
      • by patio11 ( 857072 )
        Your parentheses are borked, oh LISPing one.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        Meh. I can write just as bad pseudo C...

        #include "reason.h"
        #include "answer.h"
        #include "query.h"
        #include "statement.h"
        #include "failure.h"

        void why(query* question, statement* declaration, char* lang1, char* lang2, ANSWER* ans) {
        REASON *reason;

        reason = forced_reason_lookup(person,question,lang1);
        ans = modify_reason(reason,declaration,lang2));

        int main() {
        ANSWER *ans;
        query *quest;
        statement *st;
        char * me =
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by PinkyDead ( 862370 )
      I think if there was anything I got from the interviews, it is that great programming skills come from individuals that have a broad background. (And what brings this out is the juxtaposition of the different viewpoints - which is a nice approach).

      I'm sure you can program fine in C. But knowing low-level assembly or even machine code can make the difference between a mediocre C programmer and a brilliant one. Similarly, knowing LISP makes you think differently about how lists work within your C programs.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by rolfwind ( 528248 )
      I don't understand "Lisp Hate" at all. Having used C and other C like programming languages since I learned programming, 9 years back - and having learned Lisp just last year - I always consider it approaching what programming should be much closer than an Algol descended language.

      Maybe Lisp shouldn't be a first language in college, so the people who do come to it can appreciate it more. That way they have the fundamentals that occur in any programming language well out of the way.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    For similar reasons, I have a soft spot for Andrew Tanenbaum's Operating Systems: Design and Implementation".

    Heh. I missed that the first time around.

  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <(eldavojohn) (at) (> on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @07:55AM (#16376251) Journal
    - What do you think is the most important skill every programmer should posses?
    Guido Van Rossum:

    Your questions are rather general and hard to answer. :-) I guess being able to cook an egg for breakfast is invaluable.
    When writing a kernel, give me Torvalds. When authoring a book, give me Norvig. When making breakfast ... GIVE ME VAN ROSSUM.
    • by Chapter80 ( 926879 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @10:50AM (#16377891)
      The classic answer to the question:
      - What do you think is the most important skill every programmer should posses?
      Steve Yegge:
      Written and verbal communication skills. [Like how to spell the word "possess"]
      I laughed my ass off!
  • What? (Score:5, Funny)

    by suv4x4 ( 956391 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @07:57AM (#16376263)
    Jarosaw "sztywny" Rzeszótko

    That's it... I resign!!

    - suv4x4's spellchecker.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by enos ( 627034 )
      The guy's Polish and "sztywny" means stiff.
    • by aralin ( 107264 )
      That is because they miss 'l' in 'Jaroslaw'

      'Jaroslaw 'sztywny' Rzeszotko'

      Now, here, I fixed it for you. :)
    • Re:What? (Score:5, Funny)

      by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @11:31AM (#16378433)
      Polish guy goes to the optometrist. Optometrist tells him to read the chart which starts with letters S-L-Q-W-J-Z-B-X etc. etc.. Polish guys stares and jaw falls open. Optometrist says, "what's wrong, you can't read the chart?". Polish guy goes "read it? I went to school with the guy!"
  • by jackharrer ( 972403 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @08:02AM (#16376295)'s all about answers. Those guys answered them - and everybody knows how busy they are. I think it shows something about them - their character, the way they treat other people, how helpful they're trying to be. When I was younger I met many times people who claimed to be good programmers, but every time I asked them any kind of questions answer was fairly the same: you noob go to books, online, and other abuse. That effectively prevented me from joining OSS club. If we want more good programmers, people with passion - we need to allow them to enter mainstream - by helping them, not rejecting. Everybody started some time ago, and all of us know how hard was to get over some, now basic, problems. If we show them positive way - they will learn it - and do the same to other. jackharrer
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by EvanED ( 569694 )
      Not only that, but it shows something about the field of CS which to a large extent is unique, which is that many of the big names are still around and are emailable! I mean, you can't do that in math -- let's see you email Newton and ask him a question. Or ring up Einstein and ask about something in his paper. But just the other day I emailed an author of a paper I read with a question, and he got back in just a couple hours. It's really pretty neat.

      And yeah, you can do this with modern stuff in other scie
      • "et's see you email Newton and ask him a question. Or ring up Einstein and ask about something in his paper."

        gosh, i wonder how much time these fellows would have in their hands once they got past well 2:00PM just answering provocative emails and trollish forum threads defying their theories...
  • Notice the trend (Score:2, Interesting)

    by hackstraw ( 262471 ) *

    That everybody on the list just started programming, and most enhanced programming with education.

    I firmly believe that programming is something that you are born with, and can do or pretty much can't do. Like everything else, its something where you can always learn more tricks, tips, and techniques, but I don't believe that it is something that can really be "learned". The attention to detail, troubleshooting, and all of those little skills that are necessary to program are tough.

    To put it another way,
    • by Jekler ( 626699 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:38AM (#16377051)

      I believe the opposite. I think people are an infinite well of potential, their decisions shape their potential. I think whether or not you become a great artist is almost solely a function of how much you choose to dedicate yourself to it. People shape themselves into great things all the time, and things they never actually intended to be nor thought they had any potential for.

      I think it's a matter of mental blocks. If a person believes they can't be an artist, then they're not going to put in the necessary effort to make it happen. They won't spend anytime contemplating things like form and composition, not because they inherently lack the capacity to understand it, but because they refuse to. If they lift that mental block and purge the self-defeatist mentality, they can become as great an artists as anyone else, regardless of where their prior talent was.

      • by Acy James Stapp ( 1005 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @10:49AM (#16377883)
        "I think people are an infinite well of potential, their decisions shape their potential."

        Not true. Some people are clearly more gifted in certain areas than others. Peoples' brains develop differently and different task competencies arise from parts of the brain that are more or less effective in different people.

        While it's true that in many fields one can become an expert through years of hard work overcoming natural limits or through years of easier work in a field they are gifted in, only someone who is naturally gifted and a hard worked can aspire to and achieve recognition as a genius in their field.

        Given your example, despite my huge intellect, no matter how much I studied I would still not have the skills of composition and form of Rembrandt or Michaelangelo. I'm sure, however, that I could be a quite accomplished painter but I don't have the genius for it that these men do.

        Let me close with by stating that the Standard Social Science Model (where all intellectual skills are culturally determined) is bunk. Just as some people are taller or shorter, blacker or whiter, faster or slower, some people are smarter or dumber. Just as some people have stronger upper bodies or stronger lower bodies, are faster runners or swimmers or rowers or powerlifters, the brain is modular and people are better or worse at math, music, logic, spirituality, face recognition, self-control, and many of the other functions of the brain. These genetic differences in intellectual ability are just as important as the intellectual environment and need to be aligned with it in order to achieve genius-level work.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by orasio ( 188021 )
      Programming is very easy, and most people can learn it, like any kind of language.

      Of course, it's much easier if you learn as a kid, because your language skills are starting to form, but it can be taught the same way that difficult languages can.

      I would compare learning programming to learning a foreign language that is fundamentally different from yours, like a western person learning chinese. You need new structures in your head, and obviously there are people that do that kind of thing more easily, but
  • Then they said, in unison, "one word for you young man, Plastics".
  • by JaJ_D ( 652372 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:07AM (#16376783)
    what Jarosaw "sztywny" Rzeszótko is worth at scrabble....

    cat and lister playing scrabble
    cat places sztywny on the board

    Lister: is that a word?
    cat : yes it's a cat word for when you get you privates caught it your zip
    Lister: is it in the dictionary
    cat: could be if you're reading it in the nude and close it quickly cat demostrates the action and result

    With appropriate apologies

  • Math (Score:5, Insightful)

    by vadim_t ( 324782 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @09:27AM (#16376933) Homepage
    An interesting thing I noticed is the disagreement of what is "math" when talking about programming. I think it's a matter where you come from. If you started with mathematics and went into programming, then I guess everything is math.

    On the other hand, a self-taught programmer often sees pretty much everything as "programming". "Math" is then algebra and all that boring stuff they learned in school like trigonometry, which they never use when coding. From this point of view, graphs, trees, recursion, etc are just programming concepts and not seen as necessarily related to the underlying mathematics.

    This seems to explain the confusion that occurs when a student asks "do I need math?" to an experienced professional. The student understands math as in elementary algebra, trigonomery, derivation and matrices, and wonders what's the point all of all that when probably nowhere in the Linux kernel there's any need to derivate anything.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Lars512 ( 957723 )
      I think you're right, in many cases it's a matter of perception. In my experience (pure maths/software eng. combined degree grad), there was no part of what I did in maths which is directly relevant now to software. Most of it I don't even remember. Perhaps that would have been different if I'd done discrete maths instead. What I did find was that pure maths was a series of incredible mental exercises. You were reasoning about complicated systems, and the best proofs came from lateral thinking and reaching
    • When I'm confronted with discussions like this, I usually like to point out that having some understanding of the underlying mathematics of these things will really help make you a better programmer. That has certainly been the case for me at any rate. Though it may also have to do with one's learning style.
    • I was also going to post about the disagreement but you beat me to it. Honestly, though, I think how much mathematics that you need is dependent on what you are doing. Most programmers really only need small amounts of discrete mathematics and logic, and some programmers won't even need that. If you're designing a 3-D engine you need a lot of geometry and matrix theory. Physics engines need physics (which is really just applied mathematics). Kernels, embedded systems, and other core devices often need
    • Re:Math (Score:4, Informative)

      by ursabear ( 818651 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @10:57AM (#16377979) Homepage Journal
      Well said...

      The debate over whether or not Math is fundamentally important to programming rages on... I've heard both sides of the argument said very well. My impression is that it is the understanding of math algorithms and problem solving capability, not the math itself, that is (one of the) keys to good programming/software development. I'm sure many will disagree... but I must say that being able to see the bigger picture, solve puzzles, and have a good method of making simple solutions to solve complicated issues seem to be very important to the production of good software.

      I thought it was interesting that one of the interviewees spoke of music and programming. I am one of many musicians with whom I work - all of whom write software, and the software we write is pretty successful. Composing a score is so very similar to marshalling pieces of an API or programming systems.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MxTxL ( 307166 )
      You may only need calculus-type math when dealing with programs with physics involved... games, simulations, navigation control etc.

      In university, however, calculus is what is used to prove that you have what it takes to succeed in Discrete Mathematics or Matrix and Linear Algebra. Admittedly it doesn't take these courses to 'program', but they are essential if you want a deep understanding of why 90% of computer science theory is the way it is.

      Programming is all some people aspire to... and in a lot of wa

  • Gotta say that I didn't see that one coming.
  • Larry Wall (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @10:19AM (#16377513) Homepage Journal
    He missed Larry Wall [], creator of Perl. Not that Perl makes for great programs (though the fact that Perl works so much, so often, says a lot). But because Wall's C programming of Perl is some of the best programming out there. Perl, an interpreted language, runs faster than most equivalent C programs written by lesser programmers than Wall. It runs on more hardware than almost any language, including Java (and runs better on more HW than Java). Perl has the largest free, open source archive and one of the best FOSS communities, and has since before that was considered a feature of the language. Including the source to the language itself.

    Wall also wrote rn, which was equivalent to Usenet for thousands of people for many years, and patch, on which practically everyone outside the MS programming world depend.

    These programs are long-lived and popular because Larry programmed them so well to do their essential function. And since he's had to deal with so many obfuscated Perl programs, even winning the Obfuscated C Programming Contest twice, I expect he has a lot of wisdom to deliver to aspiring programmers with question.

    He's also probably still available to answer these questions.
    • Re:Larry Wall (Score:4, Informative)

      by Black Perl ( 12686 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @11:17AM (#16378257)
      He missed Larry Wall, creator of Perl. Not that Perl makes for great programs (though the fact that Perl works so much, so often, says a lot). But because Wall's C programming of Perl is some of the best programming out there.

      Heh... this comment reminds me of the O'Reilly convention a couple years ago, when they called Larry Wall on stage for a Lifetime Achievement Award. The award goes to the author of an indispensable software tool. They got him on stage and presented him with the award... for 'patch'.

  • by CrazedWalrus ( 901897 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @10:37AM (#16377743) Journal
    That was easily one of the best interviews I've read. The questions weren't overbearing, and the guys responding were generally conscientious in their responses. Some points that really struck me as I read some of the answers:

    • Communication is extremely valuable. Programming in large projects is a social activity. Good ideas must be adequately expressed, or they'll likely whither on the vine.
    • A good understanding of math concepts is valuable in that they teach the programmer to think about algorithms logically and coherently, not so much for their direct usage in programming. Dave Thomas even associated a musical background with good programmers.
    • Open your mind. Be a student of everything, not just technology. Read fiction, study music, be social, be curious about the world in general, and learn as much about it as possible. The best programmers tend to love learning and knowledge for their own sakes.
    • Good tools allow you to make them better.
    • Programmer + vague question = eggs for breakfast.
    • University education *is* valuable, but one shouldn't believe they've learned everything there. Programming is an artform that is refined over time with patience and experience.
    • Cultivate a sense of "value". Don't waste 90% of your time on the 5% of the work that doesn't really matter.
    • Develop good "taste" in how you attack problems. This is a bit esoteric, but I think part of what Linus was referring to is what I tend to call "elegance". Don't use a lot of code where a little will do. Don't overcomplicate. Use the right tool for the job. I think the other part was actually being able to recognize this quality in the work of others. Apologies to Linus if I misunderstood.
    • Don't worry about the Next Big Thing. Keep building fundamentals. When the Big Things come along, they're usually the product of lots of fundamentals put together in a creative way. More often, the future is shaped in small increments that people barely notice.
  • by SpinyNorman ( 33776 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @10:51AM (#16377917)
    Interesting answers, but more because of the different take on things than any individual specifics.

    However, I wasn't too impressed with the answers to the productivity question.

    While general intelligence doesn't hurt, I think the real key to productivity comes down to maintaining an interest/passion in the craft of designing and writing code. If you care about it then you will always be trying new techniques and paying attention to lessons that can be learned. At the neurological level, one only learns (lays down new memories) for something if one is paying attention to it, and form the strongest memories when there is emotion attached to the experience (totally different areas of the brain are used for emotional memories).

    A "blah" programmer just trudges through his/her work without ever really paying attention and trying to learn - they just want to get the job done and go home. A programmer more likely to climb the productivity curve will be always be excited about what they are doing, trying to do it in the best/most consise way (I'd even say correct - many probloems do have minimal solutions that can be found), trying new techniques, etc.

    It's too bad that the reality of difference in programmer producticvity isn't better understood, or there might be less outsourcing. The whole premise of outsourcing is that programmers are equivalent and therefore cheaper means better value... Personally I'd prefer to seek out the programmers who are 10-20x more productive than the herd and pay them 2 x normal rather than outsource to some Indian college graduate and pay them 1/3 x normal.

  • by 0xABADC0DA ( 867955 ) on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @11:19AM (#16378275)
    I like how Linus says "taste" is the most important quality for a programmer, but then listens to "various classic-rockish things, ranging from Pink Floyd to the Beatles to Queen and The Who". I guess, like operating systems, there hasn't been anything good since 1980s?
  • RMS (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hackrobat ( 467625 ) <manish,jethani&gmail,com> on Tuesday October 10, 2006 @02:05PM (#16380959) Homepage

    No RMS [], what a pity.

Always leave room to add an explanation if it doesn't work out.