Computer Programming as a Human Activity

This book has only one major purpose—to trigger the beginning of a new field of study: computer programming as a human activity, or in short, the psychology of computer programming. There are, by various estimates, hundreds of thousands of programmers working today. Each of them could be functioning more efficiently, with greater satisfaction, if he and his manager would only learn to look upon the programmer as a human being, rather than another one of the machines.

At the moment, programming—sophisticated as it may be from an engineering or mathematic point of view—is so crude psychologically that even the tiniest insights should help immeasurably.

— Gerald Weinberg, The Psychology of Computer Programming, Preface

This book was originally published in 1971. A decade ago there was a “Silver Anniversary Edition” published with additional commentary by the author from a perspective of 25 years on, but I don’t have that version; here I’m working from the original text.

There are very few computing-related books that are still relevant almost 40 years on. Hardware and software have changed beyond recognition multiple times, with the steady drive of Moore’s Law leading to computers that are a hundred million times more powerful. Many of today’s young programmers can barely conceive of a time before Google was the first port of call when something went wrong, never mind when computer time itself was so expensive that you had to do all your programming on paper, and, when you were ready, give it to an operator who would load it in for you and let you know the result! At the time this book was written, the debate was still raging over whether the new fangled approach of letting programmers actually work directly at the computer led them to grow lazy and adopt careless and inefficient work habits.

However, although the technical references in this book are often so dated they’re almost unintelligible, the observations on the human side of programming are still scarily accurate. Update the code snippets from FORTRAN to Ruby and the casual reader wouldn’t even realise for large chunks of the book that it wasn’t written last year. The reviews of the Silver Anniversary Edition seem almost to think this is a good thing, as it means the book is still relevant. To me it’s a hugely scary thing. How can we have learned so little in forty years? We should be looking back in horror at how programming was managed then, and the stories should sound as archaic as the technology.

In many ways, then, this book was a failure. The psychological aspects of programming are still poorly understood. Weinberg himself has developed many of the ideas much further in later works (such as the excellent Quality Software Management series), but these are even less widely read. But that doesn’t mean it should be abandoned. It’s every bit as important now as it was then, and the underlying promise quoted above still holds true: “even the tiniest insights should help immeasurably”.

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