The pioneering computer scientists Daniel McCracken passed away yesterday. Among other things, McCracken wrote one of the first books on computer programming. McCracken also wrote extensively on computer programming throughout the 1960s. I know him best through his 1962 Datamation article on “The Software Turmoil,” which was one of the first articulations of the general sense of dissatisfaction with software development that would emerge in the late 1960s as the “Software Crisis.”.
Throughout his career, McCracken argued that the solution to the burgeoning crisis on software development was in part the pursuit of professionalism within programming. The following is from another 1961 essay on “The Human Side of Computing”:.
The training of hordes of newcomers isn’t the whole story, of course. There are problems in the professional development for those already in the field. To take one instance, a lot of the present coders will have to become systems analysts in the next few years. The problem is, how are they supposed to go about learning the new skills required?[p.9]
The difficulty seems to be that systems work is not so much a body of factual knowledge, as an approach to problem solving – and no one knows how to teach the problem solving approach. All that we seem to be able to do it let the coder work with an experienced systems man, and hope that some of the skills get transferred by osmosis.[p.9-10]
This observer would like to suggest that the attainment of truly professional status for computer people as computer people is only partly a matter of demonstrating mastery of subject matter. It is also a matter of demonstrating a sense of responsibility and thereby gaining a certain dignity and stature in the public eye.
The historian of computing Arthur Norberg interviewed McCracken for an oral history for the ACM History Committee.
The 1960s were characterized by a perpetual “crisis” in the supply of computer programmers. The computer industry was expanding rapidly; the significance of software was becoming ever more apparent; and good programmers were hard to find. The central assumption at the time was that programming ability was an innate rather than a learned ability, something to be identified rather than instilled. Good programming was believed to be dependent on uniquely qualified individuals, and that what defined these uniquely individuals was some indescribable, impalpable quality — a “twinkle in the eye,” an “indefinable enthusiasm,” or what one interviewer described as “the programming bug that meant … we’re going to take a chance on him despite his background.”
In order to identify the members of the special breed of people who might make for a good programmer, many firms turned to aptitude testing. Many of these tests emphasized logical or mathematical puzzles: “Creativity is a major attribute of technically oriented people,” suggested one advocated of such testing. “Look for those who like intellectual challenge rather than interpersonal relations or managerial decision-making. Look for the chess player, the solver of mathematical puzzles.”
The most popular of these aptitude tests was the IBM Programmer Aptitude Test (PAT). By 1962 an estimated eighty percent of all businesses used some form of aptitude test when hiring programmers, and half of these used the IBM PAT.
Although the use of such tests was popular (see Chapter 3, Chess-players, Music-lovers, and Mathematicians), the were also widely criticized. The focus on mathematical trivia, logic puzzles, and word games, for example, did not allow for any more nuanced or meaningful or context-specific problem solving. By the late 1960s, the widespread use of such tests had become something of a joke, as this Datamation editorial cartoon illustrates.
So why did these puzzle tests continue to be used (including to this day)? In part, despite their flaws, they were the best (only?) tool available for processing large pools of programmer candidates. In the absence of some shared understanding of what made a good programmer good, they were at least some quantifiable measure of … something.
In a recent talk that I gave at Stanford University, I discussed the changing role of women in the computing industry. The focus of the talk was a 1967 article in Cosmopolitan Magazine called “The Computer Girls”. An unusual source for a historian of computing, but one of my favorite and most useful. My particular favorite: a quote from the celebrated computer pioneer Admiral Grace Hopper comparing computer programming to following a recipe: “You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”
This past month has witnessed a flood of reviews for The Computer Boys:
From the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing:
“It is to the author’s credit that he has crafted an account that is at once engaging to professional historians of computing and accessible to a wider audience. By liberally injecting colorful anecdotes and pithy quotes into a highly polished analytical narrative, Ensmenger has written one of those rare books that is both scholarly and a pleasure to read.”
From Enterprise and Society:
“one of the most complete histories of computing ever produced and is highly admirable for its attention to detail…”
From the Chartered Institute for IT in the UK:
“I have enjoyed reading this book so much that I could simply republish it ‘verbatim’ as my review – so that you can appreciate every single droplet. It is quite simply a ‘must read’ for any programming type and especially so for those of us who entered the industry from the university or polytechnic milk round of the seventies and beyond. All is revealed!”
One of the most significant developments in the computer industry during the 1960s was the perceived shortage of skilled “computer people”:
In 1945 there were no computer programmers, professional or otherwise; by 1967 industry observers were warning that although there were at least a hundred thousand programmers working in the United States, there was an immediate need for at least fifty thousand more. “Competition for programmers,” declared a contemporary article in Fortune magazine, “has driven salaries up so fast that programming has become probably the country’s highest paid technological occupation . . . Even so, some companies can’t find experienced programmers at any price.”.
The image is from an article in Popular Science from two years earlier. The programmer personnel crisis is the first of the many “software crises” that were proclaimed over the next several decades. The first published use of the phrase “software crisis” appears in a 1966 Business Week article on the “shortage of programmers.”