Programmers At Work

February 29, 2008

Charles Simonyi 2008/1986

The first interview page I’ve posted is from the interview I did with Charles Simonyi in 1986. It was also the first one I conducted for the book and I was finding my way. Reading over it, I’ve pulled out below a few provocative excerpts. And the entire interview with Charles from 1986 in Programmers at Work, one of my favorites, gives you perspective on where Charles evolved from.

Today Charles Simonyi has evolved from jeans and jean jacket wearing Hungarian chief programmer to space travelling, custom tailored suit wearing, coding CEO billionaire. He’s still revolutionizing the field of technology with his work and wild ideas at the company he founded, entitled Intentional Software. You will find some excellent articles about their work on this site. Complexity as a driver of elegance seems to be Charles Simonyi’s goal.

This article in the New York Times regarding his current work gives you a glimpse.

Some interesting excerpts from Charles Simonyi’s 1986 interview:

SML: Why is it taking so much time for progress to occur with computers:

Charles: Because a lot of dumb ideas have to die first. That’s why progress takes time. First, new ideas have to evolve, then the bad ideas that stop the progress have to die. Even with relativity and quantum mechanics, the good ideas had to crystallize. And then people with vested interest in the old physics had to die out.

Charles: …to me, programs can be beautiful even if they do not follow [traditional structured programming] concepts, if they have other redeeming features. It’s like comparing modern poetry with classical poetry….you can’t limit your appreciation to just classical poetry. It also doesn’t mean that if you put random words on paper and call it poetry, there will be beauty. But if a code has some redeeming qualities, I don’t think it needs to be structured in a mathematical sense to be beautiful.

Responding to a question asking for an example of an obstacle to progress.

Charles: I think that the “cult of simplicity,” the idea that simplicity is a desirable end in itself, is highly suspect. For many years this has been a heuristic enabling us to focus on the problems with the quicest payoffs. But it is just a means. I think that computer science, together with all the other symbolic sciences (mathematics, physics, and modern molecular biology) will be revamped by the understanding of very complex phenomena. Mathematics is leading the way with the discovery of very complex fundamental objects. The traditional name for a class of these objects, “simple groups,” ironically reflects the old belief that “fundamental” is equal to “simple.” Well, maybe it isn’t. In computers we may not get anywhere with real artificial intelligence, user interfaces, languages, and so on by harping on simplicity.

Charles: …flying a helicopter for half an hour is by the way, a lot like programming projects: The launch and landing are spectacular, the ride can get very tiring, and the whole thing can come apart at any time.

That’s all for now folks. –Susan Lammers

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