Programmers who defined the technology industry: Where are they now?

The future of the computer... circa 1986.

By , ITworld |  Development, Bill Gates, Charles Simonyi

Looking back on looking forward

In these quotes I concentrated on the programmers' ideas about programming, its intersection with the world of business, and their predictions of the future. They spoke about many other things: whether artificial intelligence was a reasonable goal, the first program they were paid for, the connection between music and programming. But topics I chose attracted me because I wanted to see how the craft-or-science changed (or didn't), and whether these brilliant men, each of whom invented something meaningful, could also envision where our industry was headed.

In some ways, they did extremely well -- particularly when it came to hardware. As WordPerfect's Pete Petersen said in a keynote address to my Island/Reach Computer User Group in Maine, a year or two later, one should always bet on computers getting smaller, faster, quieter, cheaper, and more reliable. Notebook and mobile computing was, perhaps, an inevitability.

But they were very centered on the client PC. None of these programmers predicted the Internet, or even the long-term effect of computer networks. That wasn't surprising (except in these sense that we expect brilliant people to be smart about everything); in 1986, there was no worldwide web, the Internet was primarily Usenet, and we relied on proprietary online services like CompuServe, available only on dial-up connections.

However, the attention only to client PCs had long-term implications. These developers were thinking about designing component software, which led to OLE (object linking and embedding) and OpenDoc. Whereupon the Web made most of those issues moot, from early uses of graphics embedded in webpages to today's mashups. There's a conclusion to be drawn from this, though I'm not sure exactly what it is.

I saw one trend that perhaps is a bit frivolous, but might also be a view into a hacker's mind. Many of these programmers were attracted to flying and boating. These are expensive hobbies suited to guys who have plenty of money to spend, but I saw a strong correlation with these endeavors and the programmers who moved into management. Aha: sailboats and airplanes made sense. Both involve going fast in a powerful, complex, engineered device that takes expertise and dedication to master. Much like an early computer, in which you needed to know everything about the machine to be effective. If you can't hack code anymore, you certainly can appreciate the beauty of hardware.

Simonyi is the best example. In his interview (which he later mused about), Simonyi had just gotten into flying helicopters. That was only the beginning of his "flight" experience, however, as Simonyi joined the small set of "space tourists" when he participated in the Soyuz TMA-10 mission in 2007 and the Soyuz TMA-14 mission in 2009 to the International Space Station. (Another computer industry based space tourist is Ubuntu's Mark Shuttleworth.)

Charles Simonyi
Oleg Kotov, Fyodor Yurchikhin and Charles Simonyi are all smiles during official ceremonies in Star City, Russia, having passed their final training exams and receiving flight approval.
Image credit: IDGNS Tokyo

Most of these programmers had (and have) a programming methodology that today would be called Agile. They mostly created a prototype that worked, and kept adding functionality until it was ready to ship. They worked iteratively in small teams. And, as Bricklin's current thoughts indicate, these developers were always cognizant that at some point you have to quit adding to the software and send it out the door. I found myself wondering how many readers imagine that "Agile" is something new.

At a personal level, there seem to be two paths for these accomplished developers. Either they grew along with the companies they started, moving into management and giving up programming. Or they went back to a small shop where they could do whatever they wanted, as both Bricklin and Sachs have done; some appear to have found corporate jobs where they could continue to research and innovate on their own terms, which is pretty cool.

All in all: This generation of computer industry pioneers -- who are figuring out how to exploit the Internet, make software mobile, and keep the user interface intuitive -- can be proud of the early microcomputer programmers.

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