Images of computer programmers tend to be charged with stereotypes: the quiet nerd, the punk hacker, the hoodie-wearing loner. But what do we really know about the people who are, more than ever, shaping our lives? As screen times soar and tech continues to replace even the most mundane tasks, it might serve us well to know more about the people behind the programs.
I first became interested in Clive Thompson’s new book, Coders, after reading his New York Times story, adapted from a chapter in the book, about the history of women in tech. As a woman in tech myself, I was struck by how thoughtful and thorough his coverage was — and not just for a guy. In Coders, Thompson, a longtime tech reporter, brings that same anthropological approach to the world of coding writ large. He deftly guides us through a culture that can often seem inaccessible, boring, or just frustratingly self-involved. He approaches tech with both an insider’s expertise and an endearing fondness, while never failing to offer a healthy dose of skepticism where skepticism is due, making the whole read equal parts fascinating and refreshing.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Thompson on a recent afternoon in Brooklyn. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Who’s your ideal audience for ‘Coders’?
Clive Thompson: I wrote the book primarily for people who aren’t coders to help them understand who these people are and what they do all day, so the average person can understand what’s going on in the technological world around them, why coders make the decisions they make, how they decide to tackle problems, how they define what a problem is… There are really so few books that have ever tried to explain what coders do, and so many of the Hollywood images are so unrealistic.
“The single biggest psychological disposition is the ability to endure unbelievable amounts of daily grinding frustration. I…