A book club for developers.
BookBytes is a fortnightly (or biweekly) book club for developers. Each episode the hosts discuss part of a book they've been reading. And they also chat with authors about their books. The books are about development, design, ethics, history, and soft skills. Sometimes there are tangents (also known as footnotes).
(Intro music: Electro swing)
Hello and welcome to BookBytes, a book club podcast for developers. This week we’re talking about “Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology” by Ellen Ullman. I’m Adam Garrett-Harris.
[Overlapping voices] I’m Jason Staten.
[Overlapping voices] I’m Megan Du- (laughs)
I’m Jason Staten.
And I’m Megan Duclos.
All right. So, Megan, you picked out this book and I was super excited about it because I’ve heard that, well, one of the books by Ellen Ullman, I don’t remember which one, is one of the best books of all time that you must read before you die.
Oh! I didn’t know that!
Yeah, I think it was actually “Close to the Machine”?
‘Cause on the cover this one it says, “Author of ‘Close to the Machine’”.
Which is a novel.
And then this one, I just want to go ahead and read this one. It’s her newest one and it’s more of a memoir about her life in technology and she’s been in technology for a really long time so I thought that’d be really cool; and she’s a woman in technology and I wanted to see her perspective, especially from that long of a time ago.
Yeah. Yeah, I did, too. I think you were the one who told me about this book and about Ellen and then I was like, “Yeah, we have to read it. Obviously.”
But those are exactly the same reasons why it was really interesting to me and why I wanted to read it was just to hear her story of being a woman in this industry, especially in the ‘70s when it was in its infancy, and just how it’s evolved and how she’s seen the whole industry evolve over time.
I did not know quite what to expect getting into it other than it was a title of a book that was brought up by the two of you and, uh, I am very glad that I read this. I think Ellen’s experience throughout her life is… Okay, it’s a pretty awesome timeline to be along. Like awesome, not necessarily in terms of all good, but just the number of things that she was near or lived through are one of those things that, like, I feel like we look back on and reflect on, I mean, it’s still going on today but, like, the number of historical event things that she was there around and, like, it’s just, it was really a great read. I loved it.
Yeah! And she’s an excellent author. It’s very well written and it just kind of sucks you in.
Yeah, I agree. I really loved it. It’s more like a collection of essays than it is a memoir. It kind of serves both purposes there.
But I think there were a couple of her essays that kind of lost my interest a little bit but, like, most of them were amazing and I loved them. I mean, I loved them all, there were just some that I’m like, “I could have done without this one.” But, I don’t know, I still really loved the book.
Right. Yeah! And so the collection of essays are written from 1994 through 2017 and some of them, a lot of them, were published in different places like Wired Magazine or different places like that in some form, maybe it was edited down, I’m sure. But I’d never come across any of these.
Yeah, me neither.
Yeah, they were all new to me and I had to double check, too, on some of them. Like, the note about the dates?
I wasn’t quite sure, like, having listened to it, I was like, “She is, her writing then was very much writing, I feel like, is applicable now, or feels very modern now, like, in the perspectives-
I felt like it was very insightful for the time that it was written.
Yeah, I agree.
I mean, one thing in particular, is the “Silicon Valley Boys’ Club”-type of perspective. That is something that we reflect back on now, but that’s something that she lived through and had remarks to say as it was ongoing.
Yeah. Yeah, it said very early on she left full-time engineering for consulting because she felt out of place. Like, engineering culture is very teenage-boy puerile.
And (laughs) there’s a story where she was back at a place where she used to work, talking to a coworker, and he was very understanding about why she left and then someone, like, yells across from across the room that he has to come quick because their water gun battle was about to start.
I think it was, yeah, it was at in my first job, probably two or three weeks in, I was working at my desk and recall getting hit in the back by one of the nerf bazookas, you remember those with, like, the huge rocket?
Not particularly. (laughs)
Like, I don’t know, I just recall as, like, a kid, it’s something that other kids had in the neighborhood or something and I was like, “Whoa! That’s huge!” And yeah, having somebody from the QA team, like, arc a shot over a wall and hit me in the back with it when we were working a little bit later one night. And this… like, that’s kind of the embodiment of it. Like you said, kind of, like, teenager-like type humor and approach to things that doesn’t necessarily match the culture or people or, like, expectation that everybody has in the workplace.
Yeah, and there’s this quote that said, “Software engineering is a meritocracy. Anyone with the talents and abilities can join the club. However, if rollerblading, Frisbee playing, and water-balloon wars are not your idea of fun … you are not likely to stay long.”
Yeah. Do we want to go into some more specific things? Like, maybe we just go through the parts and we can kind of talk about what we liked from each of those? Or do we each want to just bring something up that stuck out to us?
Yeah, I think just talking about some of our favorite parts because there are five parts to this book but they’re just kind of loosely…
You know? Like, they’re all kind of loosely related, kind of not related? (laughs)
Yeah, yeah. Um… It’s hard to know what to bring up first because I have so many thoughts about this book! (laughs)
Go for it!
Okay, I’m trying to think of what, there’s some I’m going to save for later, but more in the beginning when she’s talking about just the programming life and what it was like and when she first started, like, I think it was in the ‘70s, she talks about her job and what it was like and especially as a woman working with a bunch of men and just the blatant sexism; which, of course I knew existed at the time, but some of her stories were enraging.
Oh! Oh my gosh.
(laughs) And I think it really showed me, like, how far we’ve come as a society. And I know that, like, I personally have it really good where I’m working right now where everyone’s really just, I don’t know the right words to use here. Everyone’s really respectful and they don’t expect me to be bad at my job because I’m a woman. There’s-
You know what I mean? I, like-
I’m having trouble with my words tonight. But I know that that’s not true everywhere, now. I hear stories all the time from women in our industry, and outside of it, of hearing almost exactly the same things that men said to her at that time. And it’s still alive and well (laughs) in the workplace, unfortunately, but I just…
Comparing that to my own experience now, showed me how far we’ve come. I mean, there’s still a lot of work to be done because not every workplace is as good as mine (laughs). I feel like I’m bragging about where I work but-
Like, not every work place tolerates that behavior but a lot do. So, like, there’s still work to be done, but we have come a long way, as well.
Really terrible bosses. She mentions one that, “...he rubbed his clammy hands up and down my back while I worked.” That was one of the quotes.
Yeah, that’s… nauseating. Yeah.
And then she worked for a man who said at a meeting, “I hate to hire you girls, but you’re all so smart.”
“He would also interrupt me often to say, ‘Gee, you have pretty hair.’”
Yep, yep. That was…
That was just scummy. She even talks later on in the book, or later on in one of the essays, where she was talking about them having too big of storefronts on one of the streets and that they needed to have smaller footprints so that way people could go and build kind of their mom-and-pop type shops.
And the people that she was talking to just, kind of, looked the other way as if, like-
“Little girl, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” When-
In turn she actually took on her dad’s real estate company when she was pretty young and so she did know what she was talking about.
She ran a building in New York City.
That intimidates me.
Yeah! (laughs) Well, yeah. Just, like, putting all of these life experiences together in the skills she had, and what she taught herself, and just all the nonsense she dealt with... It’s just, I’m a big fan. I’m fangirling right now and I’m not ashamed. She’s just great.
Yeah, so I really did, I loved her story of how she became a programmer and it doesn’t get into that until part four.
In 1970 she was a student at Cornell University. She lived in a farm house and met these poor farmers nearby and then she kind of moved away and lost connections. Then the Sony Portapak came out which was this low-cost, high-quality video camera and it cost $1500 which was, like-
I think she said $9,000 in today’s money or something. So it’s really expensive. They got a grant to get it, plus some other gear that they needed, started a club, and started making documentary videos and it was always trying to promote social change. They would film an addict shooting up to dispel any glamour that drugs are glamorous. They did one about the Onondaga Indians fighting to prevent the construction of a road through their land and they taught classes on it.
Then they made a video of these farmers, I thought this was really interesting, the farmers had milk cans that would get picked up by a co-op and then all of a sudden the co-op said, “No, you need to buy this giant tank.” And the tank was prohibitively expensive for them. So they couldn’t afford the debt because it cost tens of thousands of dollars for the tank and honestly, they would need twice as many cows to even fill it up to a decent level. So they made a documentary about this, tried to show that, you know, it’s more efficient but it’s going to drive out small dairies, and in the end the milk collective still won.
But then, years later, she’s just walking down the street and sees a TRS-80 in a window and she’s like, “Well, I don’t know anything about computers but it’s technology, kind of like the portapak. It’s like personal technology, so it’s for individuals.” So she thought, “I can fool around with it and see what happens.” You know? It promises adventures in electronics and she was just kind of wondering, “What could you do with it, you know? Could you make art with it?” And that’s what led to her career as a programmer. Like, a year later she got her first job as a programmer.
Because there was such a lack of programmers, because computer science was just a sub department of engineering and engineers don’t want to go write code, so anyone who had written any code could get a job. So she turned down all sorts of job offers, worked temp jobs, taught herself, learned BASIC, and became an ordinary computer programmer, and then eventually became a software engineer. And I feel like, now, that distinction is kind of lost. We just call people software engineers right away.
Yeah, we’re definitely quick to jump into it. I think, also, the accessibility of getting in now is definitely lower in some regards. Like, having a TS-80, like, going out and making that purchase is prohibitively expensive for many, many people. And so the fact that, like, she was able to do that, like-
...got her into that. So, in some ways, we have certainly lowered barriers; but I mean, continuing along that thought is, like, she had her flow but I love that she also reflected at what we now have for, kind of, intro to programming, and-
And the review-
Of, like, the… what is it? Udemy course?
And just, kind of, her perspective on, like, what it takes to learn Python. Like, if you go and Google, “Learn Python” you’re probably going to wind up on this course. So how you are, kind of, met with, she describes it as (laughs) four men standing in a semi-circle in front of you-
(laughs) Four white men.
Yes. And trying to be humorous by having you do your first exercise being, “Rock, paper, scissor, lizard, spock.” And making, like, immediately making some type of cultural reference that you may not be able to connect with.
And, I mean, in some ways it’s like, it’s giving you that intro of, like, yeah, this is the type of stuff that you’ll encounter. But at the same time, like, it could be a very fast turn off for people to say, “Oh, this isn’t the place for me.”
And, like, it made me cringe.
(laughs) I really loved that part, too. I loved her description of the guys on the video and how she talked about how, I don’t know if she used this word in the book, but she talked about how it was kind of endearing and she kind of just loved them.
Or was it someone else? I don’t remember but she was just like, “It’s like these nerds with, like, their terrible dad jokes.”
And it was so familiar to her and it was, kind of like you said, she said you may realize this is not the type of people you want to be working with, but it is kind of going to be the type of people you’ll be working with so it was kind of accurate. (laughs)
Yeah, and then kind of the second side of it is where you have those forums of people who are actually, like, struggling through this and making their way along despite things that may sway them the wrong way. And I do feel like she does a pretty good of job of not necessarily, like, calling them out as being malicious or of being gatekeepers, but rather just, like, it is kind of the structural norms that exist and that we’re familiar with and it’s like, biases that we’re unaware of.
Yeah. Yeah, there is a good quote in this section. It says, The crucial question, the answer to which determines how easily one crosses into the programming room—indeed, into any room—is this: Do you feel invited in?
And it’s so true. You walk into a room, whether you’re walking into a church, or you’re walking into a gym, or walking into a workplace, or a school, is there anyone here who looks like me?
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And for some people that is dramatically easier than others. (laughs)
Yeah, so she did that Python course and then she did The Design and Analysis of Algorithms course.
Taught by some university, I don’t remember which one.
Was it MIT? Was it-
Stanford… it was some, ivy-league something.
And right off the bat, here's the reasons to learn Algorithms; impress prospective employer, ace your technical interviews, become a card-carrying computer scientist-
Have the lingo to fit into the higher levels of the technical community, and you won’t feel excluded at dinner parties where they joke about Dykstra’s algorithm.
(laughs) Those are really silly reasons to learn Algorithms.
Yeah, but honestly, the “technical interviews” is a big one.
Yeah, that’s very true. I had to think about that a little bit with Dykstra’s algorithm because we did that in “The Imposter’s Handbook”-
When we went through that long, long ago. I mean, I could still definitely not implement it off the cuff, but that is the reality of interviews, though. You get that sort of stuff thrown at you where it’s totally irrelevant to your day-to-day and-
I mean, other than, like, you can think through a problem. But I do not know the last time at work where I thought to myself, “Eureka! I no longer have to do this in N squared polynomial time, but rather, like, I can get it in Big O(n) now!”
But it talks about how, okay this is a Stanford course but you’re not getting the Stanford experience.
Because you're not in the room, you don’t have access to the professor’s office hours, I don’t even think they had a forum, and then the grading was not accurate because-
They couldn’t have a person grade your work, there were too many people in the course, so they had an automated system and the automated system just wasn’t very good. So you couldn’t know for sure if you were actually learning it.
And then at one point, the professor, like, turns to the camera and he’s like, “What do I expect of you? Nothing.” (laughs)
That’s so disheartening to hear.
She said, she’s like, I could practically, like, see so many people just closing the window and not coming back because who wants to hear that from an instructor of a class?
Yeah, and then, you know, so later on she’s feeling more and more excluded from that class and wondering, like, “Well how do I even get invited to a dinner party where they’re joking about Dykstra’s algorithm and what would that joke even be?”
And then the next course she went through was ‘Programming For Everyone’ and she was like, “This is going to be it! This is going to be the course I’m looking for that... it’s for everyone!”
It was so close to being it. (laughs)
And then before she even started the course, she found the instructor interviewing another instructor, so he had a whole bunch of courses taught by different people, ‘Programming is For Everyone…’ on different topics, and he turned out to be, like, a sexist mansplainer.
(laughs) Oh, I could not believe it! She put the exact transcript in the book.
Oh, she did?
Yeah. Where she said something about, the woman instructor said something about, “Oh yeah! I just learned about how the menu with three lines, that’s called a hamburger menu.”
Yeah. Yeah, and then he just-
And then he was like, “You just learned that?” And then he starts mansplaining to her about it.
And it was a live stream. Like, it wasn’t-
Just some prerecorded video that he could have edited it out, it was a live stream. So he, like, completely goes from, “Yeah, we’re gonna, this is what our course is, this is what we’ll teach you about.” To, like, publicly shaming her for not knowing a thing which is just ridiculous.
Yeah, you can’t know everything and yeah…
I think there’s a relevant XKCD for that where… when you say something to somebody and you say, “What? You don’t know about this?” As, like, a downward thing?
When, in fact, like, nobody knows everything, like you said, and so be joyous that they’re getting to experience that new thing.
Yeah. Oh, and he also made a really dumb joke. He said, “Do you know what it’s called when those three little lines, when there’s a shape of a human cut out in the three little lines?” Which, that question doesn’t even make sense.
A, what did he say? A Man hamburger or something? What did he say?
Yeah, he said it’s called a manburger. That doesn’t even make sense!
It’s just a bad joke.
Yeah, and he was like, “You got to know what the hamburger icon is, and you have to know what manburger icon is.”
I, it just, it’s just not even funny. Like… (laughs)
No. But she had a good quote in here, too. She said, “Here’s your chance-” I mean, she was just not interested in the course anymore, but she said, “Here’s your chance to learn the difficult feat of looking at prejudice and refusing to be diminished.”
Yeah. That’s a good line.
So, like, just learn what you need to know from this man and move on with your life.
Yeah, yeah. Take what you need and leave the rest.
And again, like, just like the dad jokes and the sci-fi references and U.S. television references, this is kind of what it’s going to be like, unfortunately.
Which is disheartening given, like, her aspirations that, like, programming really does need to be opened up to everybody. And not necessarily that everybody needs to be a programmer, but rather that it should be an accessible thing to everybody rather than a select few because, like, if you think... if you just have this small niche of society that is making all of these grand decisions for everybody, like, they can’t be culturally sensitive or aware of everybody’s life situation.
And so, but yet that is what’s built around them. I mean in-
Reading the book, “Technically Wrong” a while back, and like, seeing things as simple as a bathroom scale that says, “Good job!” If you’re losing weight when in fact you may not be needing to lose weight.
Could be going through chemotherapy.
Or, like, have an eating disorder and that’s just reinforcing the eating disorder. Yeah, it’s just… that’s not good.
And she mentions as well, first off we need to welcome diversity into the mono culture that exists within and we need to challenge the biased data. So that goes back to “Technically Wrong”, or “You Look Like a Thing and I Love You” where the machine-learning Algorithms are fed all this previous biased data. We need to challenge that.
Yeah, for sure. I really loved her sentiment on this subject, just talking about, not just for these reasons should people have, kind of, a basic understanding of programming and software engineering, but… well, what was it? She was saying, like the general public should know that humans are writing this code and what type of thought processes we go through while we’re writing the code, how to, kind of, think like a computer.
Because it can, I can’t remember exactly what it was and I might just be making this up or maybe this was, like, a thought I had because of something that she said, but I think it informs other people how, I mean, how to do their jobs, how to, kind of, work around that because technology isn’t going away, it’s only going to become a bigger part of our lives. And…
And just having the general public have even a basic understanding of how it works under the cover, one, helps you be more informed when it comes to things like privacy and security; but also, it can kind of inform the way that you, I don’t know, use it. I don’t know what I’m trying to say here. (laughs)
Yeah. Yeah, she also mentioned that one third of humanity has access to the internet.
And the other two thirds, even though they don’t have access to the internet, are still subject to that code running on the internet.
Because governments run off of it and all sorts of things around them run off of it.
Yeah. I liked when she talked about, like, Google’s… I don’t remember what it’s called, Google did a thing trying to bring the internet to everyone?
Oh! Project Loon.
Is that was it is? Yeah. And they’re trying to bring the internet to everyone and she’s like, “Well, in a third world country, if you get, You know, if you’re starving and there’s no food available to you, the internet’s not going to help you. If you get Malaria, the internet’s not going to treat you.”
Yeah, there was a quote from Bill Gates on that topic.
Because Bill Gates, I mean he’s a computer guy, but he’s a philanthropist now. He’s trying to cure the entire world of Polio and…
Yeah! And Covid now. And trying to-
Except for the rumors that he started it. Nevermind. (laughs) I’m just, the conspiracy theory there is just nonsense.
So many conspiracy theories.
Yeah. Sorry, I got sidetracked.
And trying to get clean water to people. So he’s trying to put his money where it has the biggest impact and (laughs) getting internet to people is just ridiculous when they have Malaria or just, they have bigger concerns.
Yeah. Yeah, it’s like the hierarchy of needs. They’re just going, like, straight to the top when there’s like, some really base-level foundational things that these people need.
Yes. Well, I’m miserable, but at least I have the internet.
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(laughs) Can we talk about the”Close to the Mainframe” essay?
I feel like that was a big one, right?
I had a question on that.
So, I mean, I really loved just from the start of it where she says, “In 1981, I decided I could not be a real programmer until I had experience on a mainframe computer. This was a completely abstract idea. I had no idea how to program a mainframe computer.”
And I actually had a question for the both of you and that was, have you ever held yourself, or do you hold yourself to a criteria that you need to do something in order to be a real programmer? Not necessarily for everyone, but yourself?
Hmm. Yeah, actually. I’ve thought about this with front end versus back end, or front end versus full stack. I, kind of, I don’t, I know front end developers are real developers and I love the front end, but I wanted to have that under my belt to feel like a real programmer.
I can see that.
Yeah, yeah. I can see that, too. I feel kind of similarly but now that you bring up the question, I’m kind of challenging that thought of, you know, I have to meet these requirements to be a real software engineer or a real programmer because when I... when she got to that part and she was saying that, I was like, that’s just silly, especially now. Like, you don’t need to be close to the mainframe in order to really be a programmer because there’s.. you know, it’s evolved so much; there’s so many other layers of abstraction between the mainframe and most everyday software engineers that that’s just, like, that’s just such a silly thing.
And it probably wasn’t silly to her, and especially at the time it wasn’t, so I’m not trying to diminish that at all; but, like, it just seemed outrageous. Like, “Oh well I can’t hold myself to that kind of a standard.” (laughs) But, like, it kind of put into perspective, especially with you asking that question of like, I don’t have any specifics, but I do kind of have that Imposter syndrome sometimes where, like, I’ll see or come across something that I know nothing about and I’ll just be like, “Well, I guess I’m not really that smart, or I guess I really am not a real programmer.”
But that perspective there, like seeing her say something like that about herself, and me seeing how me thinking that that’s a little extreme can kind of help me challenge those imposter syndrome thoughts in myself.
Hmm. Yeah, there’s actually some really good quotes later on in a different chapter about Imposter’s syndrome.
Where she’s moved on from job to job, but the quote says, “That state of not knowing proved permanent as I moved from machine to machine, operating system to operating system, language to language; each move a re-encounter with bafflement, as was my introduction to the mainframe.”
“Failing was also a permanent state of affairs; programs crash, the causes of bugs hide from discovery, designs lead to dead ends, goals are ill-conceived, deadlines are absurd. One must develop a high tolerance for failure, learn to move forward from discouragement, find a ferocious determination, a near passionate obsession to solve a problem; meanwhile, summoning the pleasures of the hunt.
Yeah, I think that was really well said and that it’s really just the nature of our line of work.
And she was, like, really scared about this Imposter’s syndrome.
She was just very aware of being self-taught that she said, “Aware at all times, I had only islands of knowledge separated by chasms of not knowing, into one of which, I was certain to fall.” And then eventually she talked to some post-doctoral student at Berkeley and he said, “oh, I feel that way all the time.”
Yeah. (laughs) Yeah, I really identified with that line especially because I, I mean, I’m still pretty new to this line of work and I love it, but I also feel, yeah, I have these little islands of knowledge with huge chasms of the unknown still. And I know I’ll feel like that forever a little bit, but it can be a lot sometimes. (laughs)
I think she is a prime example of how to deal with that unknown.
It’s seeing something in particular and saying, “Okay, well I don’t know that thing. I’m going to go do that thing so I know it.” Like, that is very much what is required in the career in general is-
Working in the unknowns.
So she decides to find a job working on a mainframe and she kind of lucked out to get this job. Like, the guy kind of begrudgingly gave her the job so that she’d be someone else’s problem. Like, she-
Like, her direct report was going to be someone else and it was someone he didn’t like. So he’s like, he told her after she’d started, like, “I thought you were going to be this other guy’s problem.” (laughs)
And that’s just a really great thing to hear when you start a new job.
I’m sure, but she, yeah, she just dives in and she learns and she meets friends, like work friends, and then there’s this bug, can we talk about the bug? That she, like-
Yeah. Well, she-
It inspired her book, “The Bug”!
Oh. She found a mentor and the mentor kind of taught her some stuff and then he said, “Go fix bugs.”
Yeah. So she-
She fixed like, three right off the bat.
Yeah. Yeah, and then she fixes, like, they had this huge long list of bugs and she fixes all but one, this one bug that just gave everyone trouble for years, and she shows her boss and he’s, like, pissed off about it. (laughs) Right? Am I remembering that correctly? He was, like, mad that she did all of that because he... I don’t remember why he was so mad, he just didn’t want her to do well?
Yeah, and it took her, that one bug took her like 10 months.
Yeah. [inaudible overlapping]
But that bug had been there since the very beginning.