Book Reviews

Masterminds of Programming by Federico Biancuzzi and Shane Warden

ISBN-13: 978-0596515171
Publisher: O'Reilly Media
Pages: 480

A book featuring interviews with the minds behind several historic and highly influential programming languages promises to be an interesting read. And indeed it is, although much of the books potential value is lost due to omissions and flaws.

As far as the interview collection goes, it lacks several important languages; a book about influential programming languages that ignores Lisp, Smalltalk and C is incomplete at best. Instead, much space is devoted to newer languages influenced, directly or indirectly, by these classic languages (examples include Objective-C, C++, and C#). Sure, it's interesting, but we've heard it all before. To make matters worse, the book includes a 50+ pages interview with the three amigos behind UML. Yes, one could argue that the over-engineered modeling language has turned into a programming language driven by case-tools. Still, it would be more than a stretch to label it as a highly influential programming language .

So, the book lacks some important languages. But how good are the interviews themselves? Well, the authors have managed to put some interesting questions together and they do seem to know the technologies and their history good enough to get some depth in the interviews. The main problem I have with the format is the lack of additional information and context. Unless you know the languages being covered, it's tremendously hard to follow. I would like to see a short overview of the core concepts of each language and, possibly, some sample code. I also believe that a potential reader would get more out of each interview if the text was complemented by footnotes explaining language-specific technicalities.

While my initial experience turned out quite negative, it got better. Larry Wall always has something interesting to say and, as I've started with Python, I enjoyed the interview with Guido. But the absolute highlight of this book is the interview with Forth creator Charles Moore. Forth is a very different language and Moore is a very special and creative individual. That interview alone saved the book.

Reviewed November 2009