E.W.Dijkstra: The Humble Programmer

As a result of a long sequence of coincidences I entered the programming profession officially on the first spring morning of 1952 and as far as I have been able to trace, I was the first Dutchman to do so in my country. In retrospect the most amazing thing was the slowness with which, at least in my part of the world, the programming profession emerged, a slowness which is now hard to believe. But I am grateful for two vivid recollections from that period that establish that slowness beyond any doubt.

After having programmed for some three years, I had a discussion with A. van Wijngaarden, who was then my boss at the Mathematical Centre in Amsterdam, a discussion for which I shall remain grateful to him as long as I live. The point was that I was supposed to study theoretical physics at the University of Leiden simultaneously, and as I found the two activities harder and harder to combine, I had to make up my mind, either to stop programming and become a real, respectable theoretical physicist, or to carry my study of physics to a formal completion only, with a minimum of effort, and to become….., yes what? A programmer? But was that a respectable profession? For after all, what was programming? Where was the sound body of knowledge that could support it as an intellectually respectable discipline? I remember quite vividly how I envied my hardware colleagues, who, when asked about their professional competence, could at least point out that they knew everything about vacuum tubes, amplifiers and the rest, whereas I felt that, when faced with that question, I would stand empty-handed. Full of misgivings I knocked on van Wijngaarden’s office door, asking him whether I could “speak to him for a moment”; when I left his office a number of hours later, I was another person. For after having listened to my problems patiently, he agreed that up till that moment there was not much of a programming discipline, but then he went on to explain quietly that automatic computers were here to stay, that we were just at the beginning and could not I be one of the persons called to make programming a respectable discipline in the years to come? This was a turning point in my life and I completed my study of physics formally as quickly as I could. One moral of the above story is, of course, that we must be very careful when we give advice to younger people; sometimes they follow it!

Source: E.W.Dijkstra Archive: The Humble Programmer (EWD 340)

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