Back in the 1970s, being a “programmer” meant writing one or files of code that input data, processed it in some way, and then output a result. A program that occupied more than 256 KB of memory, even on a mainframe, would have been considered bloated (and wouldn’t have run at all on a “minicomputer,” at least not without a painful process of overlaying). Thus, there tended to be a lot of interesting stuff going on within every few lines of code and certainly an entire file of code might contain nearly everything interesting about an application.
Today’s “software developer” is typically mired in tedium. To trace out the code behind a simple function might require going through 25 files, each of which contains a Java method that kicks a message to another method in some other file. Development tools such as Eclipse can speed up the tedious process of looking at a 20-layer call stack, but there remains a low density of interesting stuff to look at. A line of code that actually does something is buried amidst hundreds of lines of glue, interface, and overhead code. How did applications get so bloated and therefore boring to look at? I blame hardware engineers! They delivered the gift of infinite memory to the world’s coders and said coders responded with bloat beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
Does the interesting 1970s “programmer” job still exist? While teaching an intro “data science” class at Harvard, I wondered if the person we call a “data scientist” is doing essentially the same type of work as a 1970s Fortran programmer. Consider that the “data scientist” uses compact languages such as SQL and R. An entire interesting application may fit in one file. There is an input, some processing, and an output answer.
Readers: What do you think? Is it more interesting to work in “data science” than “software engineering” or “programming”?
Older readers: Is today’s “data science” more like a programming job from the 1970s “scarce memory” days?
- GOOGLE IS 2 BILLION LINES OF CODE—AND IT’S ALL IN ONE PLACE (WIRED)… and that was back in 2015!
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