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The 19 generations of computer programmers

Here is our guide to some of the more dominant tech generations in computer history, as embodied by the programmers who gave them life

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If you're searching for a fountain of youth, the easiest way to get that feeling of continual rebirth is to hang around a few tech product launches. Every new rollout comes with the fresh, unabashed feeling that this has never been done before. Ever.

But it has. Apple has been bringing us "one more thing" for more than 30 years. Even the iconic commercial introducing the Macintosh is nearing 29 years old. Newness has never been so old.

Hype notwithstanding, the computer industry has already been through a number of generations. IBM has roots in tabulating companies that began about 130 years ago. That's three 40-year generations of tabulation and computing work without overlap.

In practice, new generations overlap quite a bit. The Internet is easily more than 30 years old, but it wasn't widely open to nonresearchers until about 20 years ago. During those 20 years, there have been at least three different bubbles, each with a feeling all its own.

These generations each have a distinctive flavour, often defined by a programming language or technology. They burst out with newborn fervor before settling into a comfortable middle age. They may not be on the top of the pop charts after a few years, but they're often still kicking because software never really dies. It's always running in some corner of a stack, somewhere somehow.

These new technologies often group programmers by generation. When programmers enter the job market and learn a language, they often stick with the same syntax for life - or at least as long as they can before having to make a switch. It's not that it's hard to learn a new language; they're all pretty similar underneath. It's just that 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. The list is far from complete, but if you've been coding for any amount of time, you will probably recognise many of these generational traits in yourself, your coworkers, and the programming community at large.

Punch-card programmers

The '60s-era computers received their instructions from a stack of card with punched holes, a scheme that dates to the earliest programmable looms for weaving cloth. Some enterprise programmers talk about old software as "dusty deck," which is largely a metaphor. 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"

Favourite artifact: Wreath made of punch cards

Space Shuttle programmers

This crew just retired with the Space Shuttle. During their years, they worked with 8086 chips and kept the shuttles running by searching eBay for replacement hardware. The Space Shuttle computers may not have had much memory, but they traveled farther and faster than all of the biggest mainframes or fanciest racks.

Language of choice: Assembly code

Special skill: Remembering which register is already swapped to RAM

Social media strategy: Logged into Facebook once last year; has friended spouse and two neighbours

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"

Favourite artifact: 8086 chip


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