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


  1. […] first interview there is with Charles Simonyi. (I wrote at length about him in Technology Review last […]

    Pingback by Scott Rosenberg’s Wordyard » Blog Archive » Links for February 28th — February 29, 2008 @ 5:21 am | Reply

  2. Susan, if you didn’t know already, this Lisp hacker named Peter Siebel is writing a book very much similar to yours, called “Coders at Work” ( It is quite similar to yours and looks very promising indeed.

    Comment by Sharma — February 29, 2008 @ 9:41 am | Reply

  3. Yes, Sharma, I do know about that effort by Peter. This in part inspired me to make PAW available again and to explore online how we could do a multi-dimensional present/past version of PAW here.

    Comment by sml — February 29, 2008 @ 2:59 pm | Reply

  4. It is really wonderful to hear that. Thanks a lot for making PAW available online.

    Comment by Sharma — March 1, 2008 @ 6:10 pm | Reply

  5. Thanks for putting PAW online. I had bought the CD (from Dr. Dobbs I believe) years ago, and lost it. I love reading stuff like this.

    Comment by Chris — March 2, 2008 @ 10:26 pm | Reply

  6. I found you’re site when researching a comment from Security Now episode 110 (see Below)

    I thought you’d like to know –

    Leo Laport and Steve Gibson referenced the Title of your book when mentioning coding.

    I thought you’d like to know. I am reviewing all of the Security now episodes to educate myself (I’m over 50) on Security.

    I tried to locate your book online and thought you’d like to know the value ($28-$43.50)

    XXXXXXXXXXXXXX—cut from shownotes——

    SERIES: Security Now!
    EPISODE: #110
    DATE: September 20, 2007
    (about 3/4 through their shownotes under tab of security now…)

    LEO: Yeah. It’s not like Steve’s hiding stuff. By the way, do recommend you go to and read the show

    notes for 109 because he’s put some source code on there. And I just think that’s just a work of art.

    STEVE: Oh, thank you.

    LEO: I mean, it’s really – one of my favorite books of all time is called “Programmers at Work.” It’s I’m sure out of print right now

    as Microsoft…

    STEVE: It’s a great book. I have a copy.

    LEO: Remember that?

    STEVE: Yup.

    LEO: And one of the things, it talks to all these great, famous programmers, like Gates is in there, Charles Simonyi of Microsoft, just

    these great programmers.

    STEVE: Wozniak.

    LEO: Wozniak. And it gives code samples. And they talk about their craft. And it’s just – it’s inspiring to read what these great

    artists do. And when I look at your code, it reminds me very much of that. It’s just a work of art. Programming is wonderful. If

    nothing else I think in the last episode you might have inspired some people to turn to programming because it…
    …END OF CUT…..

    Comment by Cheryl — April 1, 2008 @ 9:45 pm | Reply

  7. Cool site, love the info.

    Comment by Bill Bartmann — September 3, 2009 @ 6:47 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: