Developer’s Nostalgia


That’s not how we do things here son!

A Senior Programmer, being a git.

In the white hot pace of IT one may think that there’s no space or time for looking backwards. But the reverse is true – backwards in time is where a lot of problems relevant to today’s ecosystem we’re solved.

Problem Solving and the Computer
Problem Solving and the Computer

Nowadays a popular website can attract millions of visitors in an hour. The techniques that made relatively puny mainframes of the eighties capable of handling millions of credit card transactions per day are as relevant today as they ever were – it’s just the numbers and audience that are slightly different.

So when I was clearing out at home this weekend I came across an old favourite that helped knock some corners of my self-taught development skills. Published in 1976, Problem Solving And The Computer: A Structured Concept With PL/I (PL/C), written by Joseph Short and Thomas C. Wilson covers the use of PL/I (often written and always said as PL/1) and PL/C for solving problems in the computer.

Now, it may seem pretty irrelevant today. There are relatively few firms still using PL/I, though it’s still got its uses. However, a lot of what’s in there is valid in any language, and PL/I is relatively easy to read and understand. But the approaches are important where many of today’s programming books fail to teach you how to go about solving problems. Rather they take you through a project without explaining why certain code is structure the way it is. This book covers that and makes lots of suggestions on code layout and structure that help you to write understandable code.

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing.  The book was bought for me by ICI (the once mighty, but later criminally mismanaged brand) when I’d not long started there as a trainee developer.  I remember using some of the techniques used, primarily around procedures, and getting a stern talking to that “that’s not how we do things here son!”  The book was twelve years old by then, but attitudes to coding techniques didn’t change quickly back then.  Languages went in and out of fashion over decades, not months like today.

Yes, I’m a Dinosaur

Hot Wired Style
Hot Wired Style

It’s quite scary to think that I was learning my coding techniques from a book set entirely in monospaced type.  Today I can just do a quick search and find what I need… so long as I know what I need.  Most of the code can simply be cut and pasted in, rather than painstakingly typed out.  I think that’s a weakness of today.  Heck, in the eighties I was mocked because I could just recompile and edit my code quickly on the terminal, not like the good old days where you punched your cards out yourself.

To The Web!

And then, of course, in the office library we also have, received as a gift from Adrian McEwen, a copy of Hot Wired Style, Principles for Building Smart Web Sites, by Jeffrey Veen.

This book, published in 1997, nearly twenty years after the book above, was a guide on how to design websites and pages.  And again, there’s little gems in there, like graceful degradation and being wary of over-use of multimedia.  But by jove, the aesthetics of the web have changed in the past fourteen years or so.


If you visit our offices, feel free to poke around our bookcase and nosey through these old but important books.  You may learn something!

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