Book Review: Life in Code

Life in Code is a collection of essays by Ellen Ullman, a writer with a background in programming/software engineering. In this collection, she muses on the life of an engineer, the role of privacy in the modern-day internet age, the rise and fall of tech economies over the last 35 years, and the sociopolitical dynamics of tech culture of Silicon Valley and San Francisco. (Which couldn’t be anymore timely with the recent news of privacy concerns from our internet big brothers.)

I enjoyed the stories when she talked about coding back in the 80s. I honestly can’t imagine trying to solve complex problems without online, searchable documentation, Stackoverflow, or even google searches . I respect the willingness to dive through pages of manuals to find one nugget of inspiration for trying something a different way. And not to give too much away, but the solutions she describes while bug hunting aren’t any different from the culprits we find today when troubleshooting code.

I have never worked full-time as a developer/software engineer/programmer, but I definitely found parallels to my technology career.

In one section she describes the life of software in the context of the life of a programmer, “If you are a programmer, it is guaranteed that your work has errors. These errors will be discovered over time, most coming to light after you’ve moved on to a new job… At the old job, they will say terrible things about you after you’ve gone. This is normal life for a programmer.”

My current role is a sales engineer, she bites hard at this when talking about a fellow developer that became a sales engineer and it hits a little too close to home. “When asked we said, ‘Frank is now in sales.’ This was equivalent to saying he was dead.”

She talks about the drive of an engineer, “I’m an engineer for the same reason anyone is an engineer: a certain love for the intricate lives of things, a belief in a functional definition of reality. I do believe that the operational definition of a thing — how it works — is its most eloquent self-expression.”

And again another analogy I found relevant to the infrastructure that I have spent my career defining, building, and refining. “And down under all those piles of stuff, the secret was written: we build our computers the way we build our cities — over time, without a plan, on top of ruins.”

She also tackles the subject of being a female in a male-dominated industry. She makes reference a few times to the internet rises and falls in her home of San Francisco and how during those peaks, the young white and asian men are the ones making the fortunes.

Overall, it was an enjoyable read for anyone who has lived in the technology world for any amount of time.

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