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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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Cray programmers

There was a time when the fastest computers were built by a relatively small company run by an enigmatic genius who spent his off-hours digging tunnels in his basement. That's a true fact about Seymour Cray, the genius who built the first generation of machines designed for big data sets and complicated mathematical analysis.

Language of choice: Cray's automatically vectorising Fortran

Special skill: Knowing how to set up loops so that the Fortran compiler could vectorize them

Social media strategy: Going to the boss's July 4 BBQ and the company holiday party this year

Other career choice: NASA rocket scientist

Clothing: Short-sleeve white shirt with pocket protector

Rhetorical tic: "It's a classified project supported by the DoD."

Car: Nondescript sedan that blends into the NSA parking lot

Song: Wendy Carlos and Benjamin Folkman's "Switched-On Bach"

Favourite artifact: Cray sitting in the National Cryptographic Museum 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: Trying to keep on 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"

Favourite artifact: Something signed by Grace Hopper

Basic programmers

It was first invented to help Dartmouth students learn how to write endless loops, but it became the dominant language of the early personal computer generation when Bill Gates released Microsoft Basic. All of the early games and software for the PCs were written in Basic. Today it lives on as Visual Basic, a popular language for anyone using the .Net platform.

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"

Favourite artifact: Cassette version of Microsoft Basic

C programmers

The language began as one step above assembler, but grew hand in hand with all of the variations of Unix. Today it's still used by those who love Unix and its latest dominant variant, Linux. It remains the tool of choice for those who want to program "close to the metal" and not rely on automatic mechanisms like garbage collectors.

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

Favourite artifact: Bell Labs coffee cup


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