handcrafting systems


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At first I hoped that such a technically unsound project would collapse but I soon realized it was doomed to success. Almost anything in software can be implemented, sold, and even used given enough determination. There is nothing a mere scientist can say that will stand against the flood of a hundred million dollars. But there is one quality that cannot be purchased in this way – and that is reliability. The price of reliability is the pursuit of the utmost simplicity. It is a price which the very rich find most hard to pay.

— C. A. R. Hoare


It is the way I think. I am a very bottom-up thinker. If you give me the right kind of Tinker Toys, I can imagine the building. I can sit there and see primitives and recognize their power to build structures a half mile high, if only I had just one more to make it functionally complete. I can see those kinds of things.

The converse is true, too, I think. I can’t from the building imagine the Tinker Toys. When I see a top-down description of a system or language that has infinite libraries described by layers and layers, all I just see is a morass. I can’t get a feel for it. I can’t understand how the pieces fit; I can’t understand something presented to me that’s very complex. Maybe I do what I do because if I built anything more complicated, I couldn’t understand it. I really must break it down into little pieces.

— Ken Thompson


A program is like a poem: you cannot write a poem without writing it. Yet people talk about programming as if it were a production process and measure “programmer productivity” in terms of “number of lines of code produced”. In so doing they book that number on the wrong side of the ledger: We should always refer to “the number of lines of code spent”.