Back in the good old days --- the "Golden Era" of computers, it was
easy to separate the men from the boys (sometimes called "Real Men"
and "Quiche Eaters" in the literature). During this period, the Real
Men were the ones that understood computer programming, and the Quiche
Eaters were the ones that didn't. A real computer programmer said
DO 10 I=1,10 and
actually talked in capital letters, you understand), and the rest of
the world said things like "computers are too complicated for me" and
"I can't relate to computers --- they're so impersonal". (A previous
work  points out that Real Men don't "relate" to
anything, and aren't afraid of being impersonal.)
But, as usual, times change. We are faced today with a world in which
little old ladies can get computers in their microwave ovens, 12 year
old kids can blow Real Men out of the water playing Asteroids and
Pac-Man, and anyone can buy and even understand their very own
Personal Computer. The Real Programmer is in danger of becoming
extinct, of being replaced by high-school students with TRASH-80s.
There is a clear need to point out the differences between the typical
high-school junior Pac-Man player and a Real Programmer. If this
difference is made clear, it will give these kids something to aspire
to --- a role model, a Father Figure. It will also help explain to the
employers of Real Programmers why it would be a mistake to replace the
Real Programmers on their staff with 12 year old Pac-Man players (at a
considerable salary savings).
The easiest way to tell a Real Programmer from the crowd is by the
programming language he (or she) uses. Real Programmers use FORTRAN.
Quiche Eaters use PASCAL. Nicklaus Wirth, the designer of PASCAL, gave
a talk once at which he was asked "How do you pronounce your name?".
He replied, "You can either call me by name, pronouncing it 'Veert',
or call me by value, 'Worth'." One can tell immediately from this
comment that Nicklaus Wirth is a Quiche Eater. The only parameter
passing mechanism endorsed by Real Programmers is
call-by-value-return, as implemented in the IBM/370 FORTRAN G and H
compilers. Real programmers don't need all these abstract concepts to
get their jobs done --- they are perfectly happy with a keypunch, a
FORTRAN IV compiler, and a beer.
- Real Programmers do List Processing in FORTRAN.
- Real Programmers do String Manipulation in FORTRAN.
- Real Programmers do Accounting (if they do it at all) in FORTRAN.
- Real Programmers do Artificial Intelligence programs in FORTRAN.
If you can't do it in FORTRAN, do it in assembly language. If you
can't do it in assembly language, it isn't worth doing.
The academics in computer science have gotten into the structured
programming rut over the past several years. They claim that
programs are more easily understood if the programmer uses some
special language constructs and techniques. They don't all agree on
exactly which constructs, of course, and the examples they use to show
their particular point of view invariably fit on a single page of some
obscure journal or another --- clearly not enough of an example to
convince anyone. When I got out of school, I thought I was the best
programmer in the world. I could write an unbeatable tic-tac-toe
program, use five different computer languages, and create 1000 line
programs that Worked. (Really!) Then I got out into the Real
World. My first task in the Real World was to read and understand a
200,000 line FORTRAN program, then speed it up by a factor of two. Any
Real Programmer will tell you that all the Structured Coding in the
world won't help you solve a problem like that --- it takes actual
talent. Some quick observations on Real Programmers and Structured
- Real Programmers aren't afraid to use
- Real Programmers can write five page long
without getting confused.
- Real Programmers like Arithmetic
IF statements --- they
make the code more interesting.
- Real Programmers write self-modifying code, especially if they
can save 20 nanoseconds in the middle of a tight loop.
- Real Programmers don't need comments --- the code is obvious.
- Since FORTRAN doesn't have a structured
statement, Real Programmers don't have to worry about not using
them. Besides, they can be simulated when necessary using assigned
Data structures have also gotten a lot of press lately. Abstract Data
Types, Structures, Pointers, Lists, and Strings have become popular in
certain circles. Wirth (the above-mentioned Quiche Eater) actually wrote
an entire book  contending that you could write a
program based on data structures, instead of the other way around. As all
Real Programmers know, the only useful data structure is the Array. Strings,
Lists, Structures, Sets --- these are all special cases of arrays and
can be treated that way just as easily without messing up your
programing language with all sorts of complications. The worst thing
about fancy data types is that you have to declare them, and Real
Programming Languages, as we all know, have implicit typing based on the
first letter of the (six character) variable name.
What kind of operating system is used by a Real Programmer? CP/M? God
forbid --- CP/M, after all, is basically a toy operating system. Even
little old ladies and grade school students can understand and use CP/M.
Unix is a lot more complicated of course --- the typical Unix hacker
never can remember what the
PRINT command is called this
week --- but when it gets right down to it, Unix is a glorified video
game. People don't do Serious Work on Unix systems: they send jokes
around the world on UUCP-net and write adventure games and research
No, your Real Programmer uses OS/370. A good programmer can find and
understand the description of the IJK305I error he just got in his JCL
manual. A great programmer can write JCL without referring to the manual
at all. A truly outstanding programmer can find bugs buried in a 6
megabyte core dump without using a hex calculator. (I have actually seen
OS is a truly remarkable operating system. It's possible to destroy days
of work with a single misplaced space, so alertness in the programming
staff is encouraged. The best way to approach the system is through a
keypunch. Some people claim there is a Time Sharing system that runs on
OS/370, but after careful study I have come to the conclusion that they
What kind of tools does a Real Programmer use? In theory, a Real
Programmer could run his programs by keying them into the front panel of
the computer. Back in the days when computers had front panels, this was
actually done occasionally. Your typical Real Programmer knew the entire
bootstrap loader by memory in hex, and toggled it in whenever it got
destroyed by his program. (Back then, memory was memory --- it didn't go
away when the power went off. Today, memory either forgets things when
you don't want it to, or remembers things long after they're better
forgotten.) Legend has it that Seymour Cray, inventor of the Cray I
supercomputer and most of Control Data's computers, actually toggled the
first operating system for the CDC7600 in on the front panel from memory
when it was first powered on. Seymour, needless to say, is a Real
One of my favorite Real Programmers was a systems programmer for Texas
Instruments. One day, he got a long distance call from a user whose
system had crashed in the middle of saving some important work. Jim was
able to repair the damage over the phone, getting the user to toggle in
disk I/O instructions at the front panel, repairing system tables in
hex, reading register contents back over the phone. The moral of this
story: while a Real Programmer usually includes a keypunch and
lineprinter in his toolkit, he can get along with just a front panel and
a telephone in emergencies.
In some companies, text editing no longer consists of ten engineers
standing in line to use an 029 keypunch. In fact, the building I work in
doesn't contain a single keypunch. The Real Programmer in this situation
has to do his work with a "text editor" program. Most systems supply
several text editors to select from, and the Real Programmer must be
careful to pick one that reflects his personal style. Many people
believe that the best text editors in the world were written at Xerox
Palo Alto Research Center for use on their Alto and Dorado computers
. Unfortunately, no Real Programmer would ever
use a computer whose operating system is called SmallTalk, and would
certainly not talk to the computer with a mouse.
Some of the concepts in these Xerox editors have been incorporated into
editors running on more reasonably named operating systems --- EMACS and
VI being two. The problem with these editors is that Real Programmers
consider what you see is what you get to be just as bad a
concept in Text Editors as it is in Women. No, the Real Programmer wants
a you asked for it, you got it text editor --- complicated,
cryptic, powerful, unforgiving, dangerous. TECO, to be precise.
It has been observed that a TECO command sequence more closely resembles
transmission line noise than readable text . One
of the more entertaining games to play with TECO is to type your name in
as a command line and try to guess what it does. Just about any possible
typing error while talking with TECO will probably destroy your program,
or even worse --- introduce subtle and mysterious bugs in a once working
For this reason, Real Programmers are reluctant to actually edit a
program that is close to working. They find it much easier to just patch
the binary object code directly, using a wonderful program called
SUPERZAP (or its equivalent on non-IBM machines). This works so well
that many working programs on IBM systems bear no relation to the
original FORTRAN code. In many cases, the original source code is no
longer available. When it comes time to fix a program like this, no
manager would even think of sending anything less than a Real Programmer
to do the job --- no Quiche Eating structured programmer would even know
where to start. This is called "job security". Some programming tools
NOT used by Real Programmers:
- FORTRAN preprocessors like MORTRAN and RATFOR. The Cuisinarts of
programming --- great for making Quiche. See comments above on
- Source language debuggers. Real Programmers can read core dumps.
- Compilers with array bounds checking. They stifle creativity,
destroy most of the interesting uses for
and make it impossible to modify the operating system code with
negative subscripts. Worst of all, bounds checking is inefficient.
- Source code maintainance systems. A Real Programmer keeps his code
locked up in a card file, because it implies that its owner cannot
leave his important programs unguarded .
The Real Programmer at work
Where does the typical Real Programmer work? What kind of programs are
worthy of the efforts of so talented an individual? You can be sure that
no real Programmer would be caught dead writing accounts-receivable
programs in COBOL, or sorting mailing lists for People magazine. A Real
Programmer wants tasks of earth-shaking importance (literally!).
- Real Programmers work for Los Alamos National Laboratory, writing
atomic bomb simulations to run on Cray I supercomputers.
- Real Programmers work for the National Security Agency, decoding
- It was largely due to the efforts of thousands of Real Programmers
working for NASA that our boys got to the moon and back before the
- The computers in the Space Shuttle were programmed by Real
- Real Programmers are at work for Boeing designing the operating
systems for cruise missiles.
Some of the most awesome Real Programmers of all work at the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in California. Many of them know the entire
operating system of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft by heart. With a
combination of large groundbased FORTRAN programs and small
spacecraft-based assembly language programs, they are able to do
incredible feats of navigation and improvisation --- hitting
ten-kilometer wide windows at Saturn after six years in space, repairing
or bypassing damaged sensor platforms, radios, and batteries.
Allegedly, one Real Programmer managed to tuck a patternmatching program
into a few hundred bytes of unused memory in a Voyager spacecraft that
searched for, located, and photographed a new moon of Jupiter.
The current plan for the Galileo spacecraft is to use a gravity assist
trajectory past Mars on the way to Jupiter. This trajectory passes
within 80 +/- 3 kilometers of the surface of Mars. Nobody is going to
trust a PASCAL program (or PASCAL programmer) for navigation to these
As you can tell, many of the world's Real Programmers work for the U.S.
Government --- mainly the Defense Department. This is as it should be.
Recently, however, a black cloud has formed on the Real Programmer
horizon. It seems that some highly placed Quiche Eaters at the Defense
Department decided that all Defense programs should be written in some
grand unified language called "ADA" ((r), DoD). For a while, it seemed
that ADA was destined to become a language that went against all the
precepts of Real Programming --- a language with structure, a language
with data types, strong typing, and semicolons. In short, a language
designed to cripple the creativity of the typical Real Programmer.
Fortunately, the language adopted by DoD has enough interesting features
to make it approachable --- it's incredibly complex, includes methods
for messing with the operating system and rearranging memory, and Edsgar
Dijkstra doesn't like it . (Dijkstra, as I'm sure
you know, was the author of GoTos Considered Harmful --- a landmark
work in programming methodology, applauded by Pascal Programmers and Quiche
Eaters alike.) Besides, the determined Real Programmer can write
FORTRAN programs in any language.
The real programmer might compromise his principles and work on
something slightly more trivial than the destruction of life as we know
it, providing there's enough money in it. There are several Real
Programmers building video games at Atari, for example. (But not playing
them --- a Real Programmer knows how to beat the machine every time: no
challange in that.) Everyone working at LucasFilm is a Real Programmer.
(It would be crazy to turn down the money of fifty million Star Trek
fans.) The proportion of Real Programmers in Computer Graphics is
somewhat lower than the norm, mostly because nobody has found a use for
Computer Graphics yet. On the other hand, all Computer Graphics is done
in FORTRAN, so there are a fair number people doing Graphics in order to
avoid having to write COBOL programs.
The Real Programmer at play
Generally, the Real Programmer plays the same way he works --- with
computers. He is constantly amazed that his employer actually pays him
to do what he would be doing for fun anyway (although he is careful not
to express this opinion out loud). Occasionally, the Real Programmer
does step out of the office for a breath of fresh air and a beer or two.
Some tips on recognizing real programmers away from the computer room:
- At a party, the Real Programmers are the ones in the corner talking
about operating system security and how to get around it.
- At a football game, the Real Programmer is the one comparing the
plays against his simulations printed on 11 by 14 fanfold paper.
- At the beach, the Real Programmer is the one drawing flowcharts in
- A Real Programmer goes to discos to watch the light shows.
- At a funeral, the Real Programmer is the one saying "Poor George.
And he almost had the sort routine working before the coronary."
- In a grocery store, the Real Programmer is the one who insists on
running the cans past the laser checkout scanner himself, because
he never could trust keypunch operators to get it right the first
The Real Programmer's natural habitat
What sort of environment does the Real Programmer function best in? This
is an important question for the managers of Real Programmers.
Considering the amount of money it costs to keep one on the staff, it's
best to put him (or her) in an environment where he can get his work
The typical Real Programmer lives in front of a computer terminal.
Surrounding this terminal are:
- Listings of all programs the Real Programmer has ever worked on,
piled in roughly chronological order on every flat surface in the
- Some half-dozen or so partly filled cups of cold coffee.
Occasionally, there will be cigarette butts floating in the coffee.
In some cases, the cups will contain Orange Crush.
- Unless he is very good, there will be copies of the OS JCL manual
and the Principles of Operation open to some particularly
- Taped to the wall is a line-printer Snoopy calender for the year
- Strewn about the floor are several wrappers for peanut butter
filled cheese bars --- the type that are made pre-stale at the
bakery so they can't get any worse while waiting in the vending
- Hiding in the top left-hand drawer of the desk is a stash of
double-stuff Oreos for special occasions.
- Underneath the Oreos is a flow-charting template, left there by the
previous occupant of the office. (Real Programmers write programs,
not documentation. Leave that to the maintainence people.)
The Real Programmer is capable of working 30, 40, even 50 hours at a
stretch, under intense pressure. In fact, he prefers it that way. Bad
response time doesn't bother the Real Programmer --- it gives him a
chance to catch a little sleep between compiles. If there is not enough
schedule pressure on the Real Programmer, he tends to make things more
challenging by working on some small but interesting part of the problem
for the first nine weeks, then finishing the rest in the last week, in
two or three 50-hour marathons. This not only inpresses the hell out of
his manager, who was despairing of ever getting the project done on
time, but creates a convenient excuse for not doing the documentation.
- No Real Programmer works 9 to 5. (Unless it's the ones at night.)
- Real Programmers don't wear neckties.
- Real Programmers don't wear high heeled shoes.
- Real Programmers arrive at work in time for lunch.
- A Real Programmer might or might not know his wife's name. He does,
however, know the entire ASCII (or EBCDIC) code table.
- Real Programmers don't know how to cook. Grocery stores aren't open
at three in the morning. Real Programmers survive on Twinkies and
What of the future? It is a matter of some concern to Real Programmers
that the latest generation of computer programmers are not being brought
up with the same outlook on life as their elders. Many of them have
never seen a computer with a front panel. Hardly anyone graduating from
school these days can do hex arithmetic without a calculator. College
graduates these days are soft --- protected from the realities of
programming by source level debuggers, text editors that count
parentheses, and "user friendly" operating systems. Worst of all, some
of these alleged "computer scientists" manage to get degrees without
ever learning FORTRAN! Are we destined to become an industry of Unix
hackers and Pascal programmers?
From my experience, I can only report that the future is bright for Real
Programmers everywhere. Neither OS/370 nor FORTRAN show any signs of
dying out, despite all the efforts of Pascal programmers the world over.
Even more subtle tricks, like adding structured coding constructs to
FORTRAN have failed. Oh sure, some computer vendors have come out with
FORTRAN 77 compilers, but every one of them has a way of converting
itself back into a FORTRAN 66 compiler at the drop of an option card ---
to compile DO loops like God meant them to be.
Even Unix might not be as bad on Real Programmers as it once was. The
latest release of Unix has the potential of an operating system worthy
of any Real Programmer --- two different and subtly incompatible user
interfaces, an arcane and complicated teletype driver, virtual memory.
If you ignore the fact that it's "structured", even 'C' programming can
be appreciated by the Real Programmer: after all, there's no type
checking, variable names are seven (ten? eight?) characters long, and
the added bonus of the Pointer data type is thrown in --- like having
the best parts of FORTRAN and assembly language in one place. (Not to
mention some of the more creative uses for
No, the future isn't all that bad. Why, in the past few years, the
popular press has even commented on the bright new crop of computer
nerds and hackers ( and
) leaving places like Stanford and M.I.T.
for the Real World. From all evidence, the spirit of Real Programming
lives on in these young men and women. As long as there are illdefined
goals, bizarre bugs, and unrealistic schedules, there will be Real
Programmers willing to jump in and Solve The Problem, saving the
documentation for later. Long live FORTRAN!
I would like to thank Jan E., Dave S., Rich G., Rich E. for their help
in characterizing the Real Programmer, Heather B. for the illustration,
Kathy E. for putting up with it, and atd!avsdS:mark for the initial
||Feirstein, B., Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, New York, Pocket Books, 1982.
||Wirth, N., Algorithms + Datastructures = Programs, Prentice Hall, 1976.
||Xerox PARC editors...
Finseth, C., Theory and Practice of Text Editors - or - a Cookbook
for an EMACS, B.S. Thesis, MIT/LCS/TM-165, Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, May 1980.
Weinberg, G., The Psychology of Computer Programming, New York, Van
Nostrabd Reinhold, 1971, page 110.
Dijkstra, E., On the GREEN Language Submitted to the DoD, Sigplan
notices, Volume 3, Number 10, October 1978.
Rose, Frank, Joy of Hacking, Science 82, Volume 3, Number 9,
November 1982, pages 58 - 66.
||The Hacker Papers, Psychology Today, August 1980.
Data from: Ed Post; Tektronix, Inc.; March 24, 1983