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Go To - By Steve Lohr
Basic Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group -- Copyright © 2002
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Go To by Steve Lohr

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Hero Programmers

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Go To is a fascinating look into the tale of those men and women hired as software programmers before the job requirements were known, before they were advertised in the Help Wanted section of the local newspaper, before any university or college offered degrees in computer programming.The story is told in a series of biographies and histories. Even the reader who has no understanding of computers will be left in awe of those who have changed the way we live by enabling the digital revolution.

Background and Quote from John Backus

How were the first programmers hired? There were open cattle calls for chess players and mathematicians or anybody who might remotely be able to do the job. In the first chapter, Fortran: The Early "Turning Point", John Backus recalls how he landed his first position at IBM. As a young Columbia graduate student in mathematics, Backus visited IBM's New York headquarters on Madison Avenue for a public viewing of a new scientific calculating machine built in 1948. Backus mentioned to his tour guide that he was a mathematics student soon to be looking for a job and the guide immediately brought Backus to meet Rex Seeber, the co-inventor of the calculating machine that Backus had found so interesting.

"I wasn't wearing a tie, I had a hole in the sleeve of my jacket, and I didn't know anything about computers," he recalled. No, no, not a problem, the women insisted, and she ushered him up to see Seeber. After a brief meeting, Seeber proceeded to a series of questions the Backus described as "brain teasers"... ...Backus recalled it as an informal oral examination, with no recorded score. Seeber hired him on the spot. As what? "As a programmer," he replied, shrugging. "That was the way it was done in those days."

About Steve Lohr

Backus went on to write Fortran, the first high level programming language. "Go To" talks about the super software programmers, those who made the major breakthroughs in software evolution, making software easier for regular programmers to write, and making consumer software possible. Lohr writes each chapter from the human-interest angle, always with an easy to understand explanation of the technological advances taking place.

"New York Times" journalist and co-author of "U.S. vs. Microsoft", Steve Lohr provides the remarkable story of the scientific revolution that made the new economy possible - software - told through the unsung heroes of programming and their achievements.

Software is an invisible art that has transformed our lives. In 1953, just before John Backus's team developed the Fortran language that revolutionized the first generation of programming, it took 30 full-time programmers to run and debug every IBM 701 computer. With HTML, for example, anyone with a bit of training can set up a personal Web page, using a laptop that has many times the power of those early giant computers.

From the Publisher

GO TO chronicles the history of software from the early days of complex mathematical codes mastered by a few thousand to today's era of user-friendly software and over six million professional programmers worldwide.Lohr maps out the unique seductions of programming, and gives us an intimate portrait of the peculiar kind of genius that is drawn to this unique blend of art, science, and engineering.

From the 1950s, when iconoclastic engineers developed Fortran for IBM and Cobol for the U.S. Government, to the open-source movement of today, Lohr brings alive the movers and shakers of every era, including not only Backus, but also figures such as Ken Thomson and Dennis Ritchie, the Bell Labs engineers who broke IBM's grip with the Unix operating system and the C programming language; Charles Simonyi, the leading programmer of the PC age and the father of Word, the most popular software application; and Bill Joy, the force behind Java, which was retooled by Sun Microsystems as the first programming language for the Internet.

In Conclusion

Through these and other lively portraits of figures as diverse as Dan Bricklin, who daydreamed his way into inventing VisiCalc while a student at Harvard Business School, to Richard Stallman, the messianic programming purist who insists that all software should be free, we see just what it takes to build amazing new worlds in code. Along the way, GO TO describes the surprisingly prominent role of women programmers in the early years, the rise of "software engineering," the constant journey to make it easier for nonprofessionals to program, and even reveals where the term "beta" came from.

With keen analysis and deft storytelling, Steve Lohr shows us how these remarkable creators of software transformed the world, and points to the ways they will change our future.

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