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In Pictures: Developer divide, 19 generations of computer programmers

From punch cards to JavaScript, computing history owes everything to those who've programmed the machines

  • Developer divide: 19 generations of computer programmers The computer industry has been through a number of generations, each with its own distinctive flavor, often defined by a programming language or technology. They burst out with newborn fervor before settling into a comfortable middle age -- still kicking somewhere because software never really dies. These new technologies often group programmers by generation. When programmers enter the job market and learn a language, they may stick with the same syntax for life. It's not that it's hard to learn a new language; you can often make more money with the expertise you have, so the generations live on. Here is our guide to some of the more dominant tech generations in computer history, as embodied by the programmers who gave them life.

  • Punch-card programmers The '60s-era computers received instructions from cards with punched holes, a scheme that dates to the earliest programmable looms for weaving cloth. There was recently a story about a punch card programmer for looms in England that still use the old technology to make lace. Language of choice: Fortran Special skill: Not dropping the deck of punch cards Social media strategy: Joining the right country club Other career choice: Advertising Clothing: Dark flannel suit Rhetorical tic: "They say there's a need for five computers, but I think doubling or tripling that estimate would be more accurate." Car: Oldsmobile Song: Ella Fitzgerald's "Mack the Knife" Favorite artifact: Wreath made of punch cards

  • Space Shuttle programmers This crew worked with 8086 chips and kept the shuttles running by searching eBay for replacement hardware. The computers may not have had much memory, but they traveled farther than the biggest mainframes and fanciest racks. Language of choice: Assembly code Special skill: Remembering which register is already swapped to RAM Social media strategy: Logged into Facebook once to friend spouse and neighbor Other career choice: Disco lighting designer Clothing: Leisure suits Rhetorical tic: "If we don't do it, the Russians will win." Car: Cadillac Eldorado Song: Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" Favorite artifact: 8086 chip

  • Cray programmers There was a time when the fastest computers were built by a small company run by an enigmatic genius who spent off-hours digging tunnels in his basement. Language of choice: Cray's automatically vectorizing Fortran Special skill: Setting up loops so the Fortran compiler could vectorize them Social media strategy: Going to the company holiday party Other career choice: NASA rocket scientist Clothing: White shirt with pocket protector Rhetorical tic: "It's classified." Car: Nondescript sedan that blends into the NSA parking lot Song: Wendy Carlos and Benjamin Folkman's "Switched-On Bach" Favorite artifact: Cray sitting in the NCM outside Fort Meade

  • Cobol programmers The first big adopters of computers never would have succeeded without a simple mechanism for writing software that supported the core business. Cobol was the first great tool for writing what the enterprise programmers call "business logic." Other language of choice: Fortran Special skill: Using self-modifying code like ALTER X TO PROCEED TO Y Social media strategy: Sends out Christmas cards printed on paper Other career choice: Stereo designer Clothing: Tracksuit left over from an early morning mall walk Rhetorical tic: "It's cool." Car: Honda Civic Song: Gillian Hills, "Zou Bisou Bisou" Favorite artifact: Something signed by Grace Hopper

  • Basic programmers Invented to help Dartmouth students learn to write endless loops, Basic became the dominant early PC language when Bill Gates released Microsoft Basic. All the early games and software for the PCs were written in Basic. Today it lives on as Visual Basic. Other language of choice: Assembly code Special skill: Using GOTO without creating spaghetti code Social media strategy: Going to Studio 54 Other career choice: Fast-food restaurant developer Clothing: Bell bottoms Rhetorical tic: "It's easy." Car: Last convertible Song: Blondie, "Heart of Glass" Favorite artifact: Cassette version of Microsoft Basic

  • C programmers C grew hand in hand with all of the variations of Unix and is still used by those who love Unix and Linux. It remains the tool of choice for those who program "close to the metal." Other language of choice: C++ Special skill: Remembering to free everything malloced Social media strategy: Posts to Usenet three times a month Other career choice: Bell telephone switch technician Clothing: Red Hat T-shirt from the early days Rhetorical tic: "Wouldn't you rather handle the memory yourself?" Car: Original Toyota Land Cruiser Song: Something by the Ramones Favorite artifact: Bell Labs coffee cup

  • C++ programmers When C programmers looked at the idea of object-oriented programming, they created C++, a baroque version that worked best when the programmer was able to keep track of all the complicated ways code could interact. It took all of the garage-grade DIY intensity and added another way for programmers to prove themselves worthy. Other language of choice: C Special skill: Multiple inheritance Social media strategy: Friendster Other career choice: Pinball wizard Clothing: Jeans jacket with safety pins Rhetorical tic: "Java pretty much broke object-oriented programming." Car: Ford Explorer Song: The Clash's "Clash City Rockers" Favorite artifact: Borland C++ T-shirt

  • Objective-C programmers (first generation) There are two groups of people who fell in love with Objective-C: the people who bought a NeXT machine and those who bought an iPhone. The first generation went on to rescue Apple in its darkest days. Other language of choice: Smalltalk Special skill: Using InterfaceBuilder Social media strategy: Subscribes to 42 mailing lists Other career choice: Wall Street investment banker Clothing: Hawaiian shirt Rhetorical tic: "You mean C++ doesn't do that for you?" Car: Mazda RX-7 or BMW 325 Song: Anything by Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, or anyone else liked by Steve Jobs Favorite artifact: NeXT machine

  • Perl programmers The simple language for manipulating text files appeared around the same time as the Internet, so when people needed to fix Web servers, they turned first to Perl. Other language of choice: Unix shell scripts Special skill: Regular expressions Social media strategy: Arguing on Slashdot Other career choice: Roboticist building simulated dinosaurs for malls Clothing: Jacket and T-shirt Rhetorical tic: "It's the duct tape of the Internet." Car: Tuned Honda Civic Song: Pantera's "Cemetery Gates" Favorite artifact: First edition of O'Reilly's Perl handbook

  • PHP programmers Many PHP programmers fell into PHP by accident. They were creating HTML, and they needed a bit of dynamic logic. One tag led to another, and they found themselves creating websites and CMSes with the code. Other language of choice: JavaScript Special skill:Juggling the coding layer and the HTML markup Social media strategy: More than 1,000 friends on Facebook; still logs into MySpace Other career choice: Mortgage broker Clothing: T-shirt depicting logo of pre-bubble startup you've never heard of Rhetorical tic: "Monetize the eyeballs." Car: Aging SUV Song: The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" Favorite artifact: Orange Kozmo moped

  • Java programmers The first great language for the Internet, Java was driven by the promise of running everywhere. The desktops never surrendered to the server farms, but the introductory programming classes did. Other language of choice: Pascal Special skill: Creating extralong variable names in camel case so the code is self-documenting Social media strategy: Checks Java.net account for local Java Users Group meetings Other career choice: Y2K programmer Clothing: Java One polo shirt Rhetorical tic: "The JVM will just handle it in another thread." Car: Mazda Miata Song: Talking Heads' "Wild Wild Life" Favorite artifact: Something signed by Jim Gosling

  • C# programmers They fell in love with Java but remained loyal to Microsoft, perhaps because the boss insisted. The code looks similar. The idioms work the same way. It's pretty much the same as Java, but with a few fixes worked into the mix. Other language of choice: .Net Special skill: Navigating the .Net documentation Social media strategy: Wondering whether Skype counts as social media Other career choice: Starbucks barista Clothing: Freebie Windows 98 tennis cap Rhetorical tic: "It's really more efficient than the JVM." Car: Toyota Prius Song: Nirvana's "Come As You Are" Favorite artifact: A Windows 8 phone

  • JavaScript programmers (first generation) The first group of JavaScript programmers weren't really programmers but Web designers who needed their page to do a bit more. Many just wanted to check inputs, but a few ushered in the unending era of garish animations. Other language of choice: HTML Special skill: Remembering to put the function between script tags Social media strategy: Going to a friend's GeoCities page Other career choice: Chain restaurant manager Rhetorical tic: "It works on IE 5.5 but not 6.0 yet." Clothing: Parachute pants Car: Ford Taurus Song: Beastie Boys' "So What'cha Want" Favorite artifact: Netscape Share Certificate

  • Ruby on Rails programmers It takes all of 10 minutes to wrap a nice website around MySQL, then years to fiddle with it. The Ruby language offers a clean, low-punctuation syntax, while the Rails framework makes it easy to type the smallest files around. It's almost as if it were designed by carpal-tunnel sufferers. Other language of choice: SQL Special skill: Getting your stack to run on JRuby Social media strategy: Writing a personal version of Facebook in 20 lines of code Other career choice: Molecular gastronomist Clothing: Plaid shirt and jeans Rhetorical tic: "You just need a few tables and you're done." Car: Minivan Song: "The Rails Song" Favorite artifact: 37 Signals T-shirt

  • Objective-C programmers (second generation) The second generation of Objective-C lovers appeared during the app gold rush after Apple opened up the iPhone to apps written by outsiders. Suddenly a language slowly dying was reborn. Other language of choice: JavaScript Special skill: Figuring out how to make the layout manager work Social media strategy: Posts pictures to Instagram and Hipstamatic but never uses words Other career choice: Mortgage foreclosure processor Clothing: Hoodie Rhetorical tic: "This will sell millions." Car: BMW Song: Feist's "1234" or anything else chosen for an Apple commercial Favorite artifact: iPod with a wheel

  • JavaScript programmers (second generation) At some point, JavaScript programming turned into a professional path with snooty ideas and endless debates about clean code. Today, many Web pages are powered by sophisticated stacks that can only be maintained by skilled coders. The field is dominated by libraries that abstract away browser incongruities and offer a sophisticated plug-in structure. Other language of choice: jQuery Special skill: Closures Social media strategy: Waiting for App.net Other career choice: Working as a barista Clothing: Hoodie Rhetorical tic: "There's an open source jQuery plug-in that does it." Car: Fixed-gear bicycle Song: M83, "Midnight City" Favorite artifact: Brendan Eich DM

  • Haskell programmers The language of the future offers a functional, statically typed mechanism that can reduce the complexity of event-driven code. The main users are still found in universities, but that's changing as cool open source projects gain traction. Other language of choice: ML Special skill: Getting around the prohibitions on keeping state around Social media strategy: Alumni Notes, Reddit Other career choice: Professor of mathematics Clothing: Turtleneck sweater with elbow patches Rhetorical tic: "I like my laziness effortless and ubiquitous." Car: Yugo Song: Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Klavierstücke IX" Favorite artifact: Möbius strip

  • Hadoop programmers The tool for building map/reduce jobs is technically not a language, but a collection of libraries written in Java. Not that it matters -- writing the code requires a talent for spotting the best way to spread out the workload over a cluster of machines. Other language of choice: Java Special skill: Making sure the data is always local Social media strategy: Yahoo coding conferences Other career choice: Actuary Clothing: Flannel shirt with beard, where possible Rhetorical tic: "Big data." Car: Retro Schwinn 10-speed bike Song: Dan Deacon's electronica Favorite artifact: Stuffed elephant

  • Node.js programmers They learned JavaScript to add an Easter egg to their band's website. Now they're working for the enterprise using that same JavaScript to handle $10 billion in forex transactions a day. Other language of choice: jQuery Special skill: Trying to remember not to block the server with code that takes too long to execute Social media strategy: Still bummed Diaspora hasn't gone far Other career choice: Going to college Clothing: Ironic T-shirt from Old Navy Rhetorical tic: "Threads can be concurrent? Are you sure?" Car: Skateboard Song: "Video Games" by Lana del Rey Favorite artifact: Rooted Android phone running Node

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