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The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise

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This is a book about the computer revolution of the mid-twentieth century and the people who made it possible. Unlike most histories of computing, it is not a book about machines, inventors, or entrepreneurs. Instead, it tells the story of the vast but largely anonymous legions of computer specialists--programmers, systems analysts, and other software developers--who trans This is a book about the computer revolution of the mid-twentieth century and the people who made it possible. Unlike most histories of computing, it is not a book about machines, inventors, or entrepreneurs. Instead, it tells the story of the vast but largely anonymous legions of computer specialists--programmers, systems analysts, and other software developers--who transformed the electronic computer from a scientific curiosity into the defining technology of the modern era. As the systems that they built became increasingly powerful and ubiquitous, these specialists became the focus of a series of critiques of the social and organizational impact of electronic computing. To many of their contemporaries, it seemed the "computer boys" were taking over, not just in the corporate setting, but also in government, politics, and society in general. In "The Computer Boys Take Over," Nathan Ensmenger traces the rise to power of the computer expert in modern American society. His rich and nuanced portrayal of the men and women (a surprising number of the "computer boys" were, in fact, female) who built their careers around the novel technology of electronic computing explores issues of power, identity, and expertise that have only become more significant in our increasingly computerized society. In his recasting of the drama of the computer revolution through the eyes of its principle revolutionaries, Ensmenger reminds us that the computerization of modern society was not an inevitable process driven by impersonal technological or economic imperatives, but was rather a creative, contentious, and above all, fundamentally human development.


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This is a book about the computer revolution of the mid-twentieth century and the people who made it possible. Unlike most histories of computing, it is not a book about machines, inventors, or entrepreneurs. Instead, it tells the story of the vast but largely anonymous legions of computer specialists--programmers, systems analysts, and other software developers--who trans This is a book about the computer revolution of the mid-twentieth century and the people who made it possible. Unlike most histories of computing, it is not a book about machines, inventors, or entrepreneurs. Instead, it tells the story of the vast but largely anonymous legions of computer specialists--programmers, systems analysts, and other software developers--who transformed the electronic computer from a scientific curiosity into the defining technology of the modern era. As the systems that they built became increasingly powerful and ubiquitous, these specialists became the focus of a series of critiques of the social and organizational impact of electronic computing. To many of their contemporaries, it seemed the "computer boys" were taking over, not just in the corporate setting, but also in government, politics, and society in general. In "The Computer Boys Take Over," Nathan Ensmenger traces the rise to power of the computer expert in modern American society. His rich and nuanced portrayal of the men and women (a surprising number of the "computer boys" were, in fact, female) who built their careers around the novel technology of electronic computing explores issues of power, identity, and expertise that have only become more significant in our increasingly computerized society. In his recasting of the drama of the computer revolution through the eyes of its principle revolutionaries, Ensmenger reminds us that the computerization of modern society was not an inevitable process driven by impersonal technological or economic imperatives, but was rather a creative, contentious, and above all, fundamentally human development.

30 review for The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise

  1. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    Ensmenger has provided scholars of organizations, technology, and business a tremendous service with this book. He draws effectively from both the history and sociology of technology to argue that the understanding of the artifact of software is critical to comprehending the ways in which organizations changed after WWII as a result of the wide scale adoption of the electronic digital computer. It forms a very useful companion to Paul Ceruzzi's landmark history of computing ("A History of Modern Ensmenger has provided scholars of organizations, technology, and business a tremendous service with this book. He draws effectively from both the history and sociology of technology to argue that the understanding of the artifact of software is critical to comprehending the ways in which organizations changed after WWII as a result of the wide scale adoption of the electronic digital computer. It forms a very useful companion to Paul Ceruzzi's landmark history of computing ("A History of Modern Computing") which tends to focus primarily (but not exclusively) on hardware. In this book, Ensmenger argues that the problem of software (both in a broad sense and a narrow sense), not anticipated by the original sponsors of the electronic digital computer, has produced two results that would seem contradictory. On the one hand, the challenges of writing and maintaining effective software has led to the burgeoning of this category of professional employment since WWII. It has also resulted in an ongoing "software crisis" which is expressed as follows: "why is it that good software is so hard to write and software projects so hard to manage"? Ensmenger demonstrates that these tensions in the field drive the post-war dynamics of the industry and have resulted in its current structure. As (primarily) an organizational and economic sociologist who is interested in how technology and organizations interact, for me there is a great deal of material presented in this book that compels thought and reflection. He touches on questions of materiality, of management ideology, of professionalization, and the nature of work. He also adds to the list of (mostly younger) scholars, like Greta Krippner, Monica Prasad, and others who are increasingly discontented with 1970's style "stratification" work such as Harry Braverman and David Noble, among many others. While inequality is an outcome of many work and bureaucratic processes, these younger scholars are loathe to make these simple reflections of power ideology and are eager to explore the unintended consequences dimension of the issue. This is, in my opinion, a good thing. This is also on the whole a well-written book. The prose is for the most part quite clear, with perhaps the exception of Chapter 7, the driest in the book. However, I am also left unsatisfied by this book, not because it is bad or wrong per se, but because it was not "sufficiently cooked". By this I mean to say that the book needed some additional editing and drafting to be really ready for prime time. Namely, what the book calls for is an additional analytic layer thread throughout the text that pulls together Ensmenger's narrative. He also does not capitalize on some of his ideas as much as he could. As a fellow academic, I say these things because I am in the same sort of trenches, and my own work has been correctly critiqued for many of the same reasons. So it is in the spirit of co-operation and solidarity that I make these critiques. 1) Ensmenger needs to pull out and define the "software crisis" more explicitly earlier on. He explains it throughout the analysis, but it could have been set up more effectively at the start. Indeed, the main question that I see him addressing is how the profession of computer programming (such as it is) and the "software crisis" are iteratively co-constructed. I just would like to have seen a standalone section about the crisis and how *little* it has changed over the decades. 2) I wish that he had gone into some detail about the historical emergence of programming as – to use a term from Thomas P. Hughes work, which Ensmenger relies on – a "negative salient" needing resources to address. He made me think that he would discuss the very earliest cases of where programming was discovered not to be simply a detail but a major problem, and then he glosses on by. I would have loved just a few pages on this. 3) In Chapter 4, he goes on about "automatic programming languages", by which he seems to mean higher order languages (like C and C++) but he uses the term automatic programming languages only in this chapter, and uses the term higher order languages in the rest of the book. This chapter was not ready for publication. He needed to explain what he meant by the term – although I got the gist of what he meant because of other reading. Basically, higher order languages are attempts to demystify programming by not forcing potential programmers to have to use cryptic assembly language or machine language. Automatic compilers turn higher level languages into these later two categories and as such are a kind of tool. Ensmenger goes so far with respect to discussing material constraints that for him not to flesh out what he means here doubly frustrating. 4) The book sees too much repetition. The most egregious example was citing Maurice Wilkes line that: "…I realized that for the rest of my life I was going to spend a good deal of my time finding mistakes that I had made in my programs" in its entirety no less than *four* times in the text. Having cited it once, I am sure he could have referred to it more elliptically afterwards. 5) Point four exemplifies the sense I had in the book that it was written in some ways as stand alone chapters that were then put into linear format. It lacks a degree of coherence that would really sinter the points of analysis together. As it is, it feels somewhat detached, like a draft that is pulling together an innovative line of research. My complaint is not that the book is imperfect, simply that it needed a bit more preparation before serving. 6) This is a minor point, but it galled me a little that he talks about "visible technicians" without throwing out a little credit to how this bounces off of historian of science Steven Shapin's notion of the "invisible technician". Again, I make these points in the name of academic solidarity rather than as condemnation. The problems that I identify are precisely the *expected* products of intellectual path finding, and this is a path breaking work that I expect to be highly important and which I plan to use as a valued source in my own future work.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jan D

    Telling the history of how programmer became a job and what kind of job it became. It focusses mainly on a time roughly between 1955 and 1970: Computers are used more and more and more and more people are needed to write software. The major struggle described is that programmers are seen as hard to manage and the various attempts to make them part of a taylorist machine of software creation – which did not work. These attempts are justified by an never ending "software crisis" of projects having Telling the history of how programmer became a job and what kind of job it became. It focusses mainly on a time roughly between 1955 and 1970: Computers are used more and more and more and more people are needed to write software. The major struggle described is that programmers are seen as hard to manage and the various attempts to make them part of a taylorist machine of software creation – which did not work. These attempts are justified by an never ending "software crisis" of projects having errors, running over budget and being to late, blamed on the "artisan" programmers who do not have organized knowledge but only intricate local skills. While managers and programmers are in a conflict, the programmer community, meanwhile, has its internal fights of how to become a profession rather than a mere occupation: Certifications, Academia, Associations… measures that are fiercly fought over, also by mobilizing concerns of the "software crisis". Like many history books, one needs to be fine with repetition and retelling. This makes the middle part a bit boring. Naturally, the conflicts repeat, the same frames are reiterated, a formerly failed strategy is tried again… Thats life, and just like this it has its boring and repetitive passages. The final section ties the strings together and connects it with mid-range social theory: Why did programming not become a profession? (They are rather technicians than professionals) What were strategies to maintain power? (By having the cake and eating it, too, using different, sometimes conflicting stratgies depending on situation) Why were there fewer and fewer women? (Professionalization works also by exclusion via certificates and courses; To professionalize, the "male" and exiting work of planning and commanding was foregrounded while "feminine" and seemingly mundane work of maintainance and care were pushed in the background to not endanger the field's status) A good introduction to the field that does not glorify nerds and hackers or other geniuses (or the attempts to be one) but focusses on work in organizations, conflicts and the politics in offices and universities. Readers familiar with programming today might see some parallels of the conflicts of the sixties with todays dev/management methods of scrum and agility and their use by both management and developers to exert power.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jo

    A bit repetitive, some ambiguous terminology when talking about higher-level programming languages and contains a long winded part about certification programs which didn't really interest me. Having said that, this book is an absolute MUST READ if you have any interest in the history of the profession of software development. I am a professional software developer and this book had me nodding vehemently at stuff I have already figured out myself, but also introduced me to a whole new perspective A bit repetitive, some ambiguous terminology when talking about higher-level programming languages and contains a long winded part about certification programs which didn't really interest me. Having said that, this book is an absolute MUST READ if you have any interest in the history of the profession of software development. I am a professional software developer and this book had me nodding vehemently at stuff I have already figured out myself, but also introduced me to a whole new perspective on why things are the way they are today. This is not just a chronological list of invented computers and programming languages. It puts the evolution of software development in context of several perspectives. First, the broader organizational perspective (i.e. the struggle for power between traditional management and the sandal-wearing developer that had sole power over this newly introduced "computer system" that was shaking up the entire economy). Second, the internal tension between IT academics looking for a core body of knowledge in order to professionalize and business programmers that felt these topics were too distant from their daily work. The book also contains some hints as to why an industry that originally consisted largely out of women has sadly completely degenerated into the modern bro culture. Highly recommend!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Vetek

    too general, rare good info, was hoping it was about specific people more rigorously. finished quick, glad to move on.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Omayma

    The book provides an overview about the history of computing/computer science while shedding the light on the origin of some issues that, surprisingly, still exist like forming/managing software engineering teams, career progression, language wars, gate keeping, exclusionary practices and more. I'd say the book included some repetition and it could be refined to be more concise with better flow between the sections/chapter. But all in all, it was informative and made me see parallels with other e The book provides an overview about the history of computing/computer science while shedding the light on the origin of some issues that, surprisingly, still exist like forming/managing software engineering teams, career progression, language wars, gate keeping, exclusionary practices and more. I'd say the book included some repetition and it could be refined to be more concise with better flow between the sections/chapter. But all in all, it was informative and made me see parallels with other evolving fields like Data Science.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Wellbow

    I found this book difficult to rate. While it is an astoundingly well-researched document of the history of software development and its sociological/professional issues, the writing style is extremely bland and repetitive to the point where I questioned if I should finish reading. I feel I'd be more comfortable recommending it to a reader as a reference for quotes and facts than something to be digested cover-to-cover. I found this book difficult to rate. While it is an astoundingly well-researched document of the history of software development and its sociological/professional issues, the writing style is extremely bland and repetitive to the point where I questioned if I should finish reading. I feel I'd be more comfortable recommending it to a reader as a reference for quotes and facts than something to be digested cover-to-cover.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Caspar

    Working on a thesis about the history of programming I really enjoyed reading Ensmenger's brilliant summary of the social aspect of computer history. While one book can never tell the full story this book updates the tale to recent isnights and stresses out that the history of technology is not only about tech. Working on a thesis about the history of programming I really enjoyed reading Ensmenger's brilliant summary of the social aspect of computer history. While one book can never tell the full story this book updates the tale to recent isnights and stresses out that the history of technology is not only about tech.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ietrio

    Christian scholarship paid by the government. How beautifully shallow!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Liam

    "To many observers of the computer industry, reconciling the two dominant but opposing views of the history of computing -- the glorious history of computer hardware and the dismal history of computer software -- often has been difficult, if not impossible. The seeming paradox between the inevitable progress promised by Moore's Law and the perpetual crisis in software production challenges conventional assumptions about the progressive nature of computer technology. This is perhaps the most sign "To many observers of the computer industry, reconciling the two dominant but opposing views of the history of computing -- the glorious history of computer hardware and the dismal history of computer software -- often has been difficult, if not impossible. The seeming paradox between the inevitable progress promised by Moore's Law and the perpetual crisis in software production challenges conventional assumptions about the progressive nature of computer technology. This is perhaps the most significant lessons to be learned from the history of software: There is no Moore's Law for software technology." (10) "The first computer programmers were not scientists or mathematicians; they were low-status, female clerical workers and desktop calculator operators. The origins of programming as a profession lie in the commercial traditions of machine-assisted, manual computation, not in the mainstream of theoretical mathematics." (32) "Driven by emergence of what they [Howard Leavitt and Thomas Whisler ca. 1958] called 'information technology,' this revolution would radically reshape the landscape of the modern corporation, completely reversing the recent trend toward participative management, recentralizing power in the hands of a few top executives, and utterly decimating the ranks of middle management." (154) "'As the child delights in his mud pie, so the adult enjoys building things, especially things of his own design. I believe that this delight bust be an image of God's delight in making things, a delight shown in the distinctiveness and newness of each leaf and each snowflake.'" (quoting Frederick Brooks, 208)

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lovro

    This was a very interesting book. I have read a few books concerning the history of computing or some specific important project, but most of them were written in a technical manner by technical people. This book is more a sociological work than a technical one. It deals with workers of the computing revolution. There are a few narratives. One of them is the place of women in the computing industry, starting with programmers being almost exclusively women, because every one saw operating the com This was a very interesting book. I have read a few books concerning the history of computing or some specific important project, but most of them were written in a technical manner by technical people. This book is more a sociological work than a technical one. It deals with workers of the computing revolution. There are a few narratives. One of them is the place of women in the computing industry, starting with programmers being almost exclusively women, because every one saw operating the computers as a clerical job to being almost ostracized from the computer industry all together. Another one is the struggle of a part of the industry to make programming an accepted science and to find a way to train good programmers. One of the constant struggle in the industry from the onset is a deficiency of programming personnel. All in all it is an interesting book which shines a light on the history of computing from a different angle.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jason Lewis

    An excellent sociological and historical survey both of programming as a 'profession' and computer science as an academic discipline. It addresses the dynamics of class and gender in the struggle for legitimacy of each as an independent field, the tension between the two, and the disruptive force of technical expertise within entrenched hierarchical organizations, whether academic or corporate. An excellent sociological and historical survey both of programming as a 'profession' and computer science as an academic discipline. It addresses the dynamics of class and gender in the struggle for legitimacy of each as an independent field, the tension between the two, and the disruptive force of technical expertise within entrenched hierarchical organizations, whether academic or corporate.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Felipe Bañados

    Nice book. A discussion on how the programming profession came to be (or is trying to, for the last 50 years), and how the current social position of programmers is the result of a power struggle between programmers and management.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Christophe Addinquy

    ma note de lecture en français ici ma note de lecture en français ici

  14. 4 out of 5

    Itamar

  15. 5 out of 5

    Christine

  16. 4 out of 5

    Helga

  17. 5 out of 5

    Sebastien Fage

  18. 5 out of 5

    Derek M.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Inny So

  20. 4 out of 5

    David Burel

  21. 5 out of 5

    Luis

  22. 4 out of 5

    Robert Cooper

  23. 4 out of 5

    Cullen Enn

  24. 4 out of 5

    John

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jason Heppler

  26. 5 out of 5

    Brad Feld

  27. 5 out of 5

    Diego

  28. 5 out of 5

    b612

  29. 4 out of 5

    Fabiane Lima

  30. 5 out of 5

    Azzaz

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