Monthly Archives: June 2011

What Makes a Big Name in Software?

Mark Zuckerberg’s been in the news a lot lately for a variety of reasons:

  • killing the animals he eats
  • talking at a G8 summit
  • insisting that Facebook is a great tool for education
  • being Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2010

Personally, I’m disinclined to think that his is an opinion which should be listened to on economic matters at a G8 summit. I would probably even be disinclined to listen to the man’s opinions on technology and software development.

And yet he’s a big name in software. Ask a random stranger off the street for the name of an important person in computers and software, you’ll probably hear his name. Maybe Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

I don’t think these people should be the face of software development in the eyes of the public, though. Really, these people are far from great computer scientists (if they can be called scientists) and far from being great engineers who shaped the field; rather these are all great entrepreneurs who shaped the industry.

I think all the admiration and credit Mark Zuckerberg gets for networking millions of people together should be given to Tim Burners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web and never got to be Time Magazine Person of the Year.

While Steve Jobs was pivotal to the personal computer revolution, I also think a fair chunk of the technological cred given to Steve Jobs should go instead to Steve Wozniak.

I don’t know who should get more credit for Gates’ work than Gates, but business decisions such as marketing to programmers (so they’d develop 3rd party apps for Windows) and buying QDOS from IBM made Microsoft a success; not technological innovation.

Edit: re-reading this… I get the impression that maybe I’m a tad confused over the history of QDOS, Microsoft, MS DOS and IBM…

When you boil down to it, Zukerberg, Jobs and Gates are entrepreneurs and business men before they are either scientists or software engineers.

Ask people to name physicists and you’ll hear the names of great physicists like Einstein, Curie and Feynman. Ask people to name biologists, and you’re bound to hear Darwin or Dawkins. Ask for chemists and you’ll hear names like… uh… ok, I don’t any chemists off the top of my head. Maybe that guy who dreamed about the benzene ring… whatever his name was.

Ask for computer scientists, and you will hear the names of business men like Zuckerberg, Jobs and Gates. You will hear no names like Dijkstra, no Berners-Lee, no Zuse, no John McCarthy… not even Shanon, who is often credited with writing the most important thesis of all times. Of all times – not just in the field of computers.

I think this is a bad thing. Somehow the fields of computer science and software engineering have become indistinguishable from the technology industry, and not only in the eyes of the average joe; ask students of Software Engineering or Computer Science the same question and you’ll probably get the same answers. These students work with Java but don’t care to know the name James Gosling; they write Perl but have never heard of Larry Wall (or his web site, which I credit as the ugliest in the world). They write PHP but can’t identify Rasmus Lerdorf… and I could continue like this.

Maybe it would do us well to have a Software History Month…