Business History recently published a review of The Computer Boys by the distinguished historian Richard John, the author of (among other things) two books that have had a lasting influence on my teaching and research: Spreading the News: the American Postal System From Franklin to Morse and Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications. A brief excerpt from his review:
Ensmenger tells the history of a neglected, vitally important occupation group. In so doing, he provides a solid foundation on which others can build to analyse how computer programming has, and has not, transformed US business, and how business managers have, and have not, met the recurrent technical demands that computer programming poses not only for everyday operations, but also for business strategy, corporate governance, and the innovative process.
John notes that the book is not itself a business history, but recognizes the significance of software development to most modern firms and the central paradox that software often poses for even the most computer-savvy corporations: namely, that “Over time, computer hardware has become progressively cheaper and faster, a fact that is well known; less well known, but no less consequential, is the fact that over time consumer software has become more expensive and less reliable.” There are historians of computing, such as Martin Campbell-Kelly and Jim Cortada, who have started to develop a business history of software, but this is still much work to be done. The Computer Boys was very deliberately designed to capture the previously invisible perspective of the computer programer; I would love to write a companion volume that deals with the business history of the software contractors of this same critical period. My current project on flowcharts represents one attempt to get started on this challenging project.