Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Book Review: Coders at Work / Founders at Work

I just finished reading Coders at Work. I received it as an early Christmas present, and while I've read several other books in the interim, getting to the end was a struggle. This is in sharp contrast to its companion volume, Founders at Work, which I bought last summer and read over the course of a week.

Both books consist of interviews with more-or-less well-known people. In Founders, these range from Steve Wozniak, talking about early days at Apple, to James Hong, who found himself dealing with the viral growth of Hot or Not. In Coders, the interviews range from Simon Peyton Jones (the creator of Haskell) to Donald Knuth (who should need to introduction). All of whom have fascinating histories.

So why did I like one book and not the other? At first I thought it was because I was more familiar with the programmers' stories, particularly those who entered the field at the same time I did. In comparison, the founders' stories were new to me: the challenges of dealing with a viral website, the hunt to find funding. Those stories seemed particularly relevant to me at the time, given that I had just left my full-time job with the thought of founding a software business.

But as I plowed through Coders, I realized that the difference was in the interviewers, not the interviewed. Jessica Livingston, the author of Founders, seemed to let her interviewees go wherever they wished: Woz, for example, took three pages to describe how he got the Apple floppy drive to work. Peter Seibel, by comparison, seemed to have a set list of questions, and forced each interviewee to respond to those questions. At one point I thought of turning “literate programming” into a drinking game, but realized I would be too drunk to ever finish the book.

This approach not only made the interviews unfocused, it made them long. If you put the two books side by side, they appear to be the same size. That's misleading: Founders is 466 pages, while Coders is 617. More important, the former has 33 interviews, the latter only 15. It's easy to read 15 pages in a sitting, but you have to plan for 40+ — or put the book down halfway through and try to regain context when you pick it up.

Bottom line: if you want to learn about the history of our industry, both books are a good choice. If you want to enjoy the process of learning, stick with Founders.

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