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
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 things like "DO 10 I=1,10" and "ABEND" (they 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-80's.
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
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.
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 Programming:
- Real Programmers aren't afraid to use GOTO's.
- Real Programmers can write five-page-long DO loops without
- 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 IF, REPEAT ... UNTIL, or
CASE statement, Real Programmers don't have to worry about not
using them. Besides, they can be simulated when necessary using
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)
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 this done.)
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 were mistaken.
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 Seymore 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.
Seymore, needless to say, is a Real Programmer.
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
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
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 EQUIVALENCE, and make it impossible
to modify the operating system code with negative subscripts. Worst of
all, bounds checking is inefficient.
- Source code maintenance 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
- 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
- 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 ground-based 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
pattern-matching 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 a PASCAL programmer) for
navigation to these tolerances.
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" ((C), 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 challenge 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
of people doing graphics in order to avoid having to write COBOL
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 the sand.
- At a funeral, the Real Programmer is the one saying "Poor
George. And he almost had the sort routine working before the
- 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 done.
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 calendar for the year 1969.
- 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 machine.
- 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 flowcharting template, left there by
the previous occupant of the office. (Real Programmers write
programs, not documentation. Leave that to the maintenance 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
impresses 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. In general:
- 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 coffee.
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 #define.)
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 ill-defined 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 inspiration.
- Feirstein, B., "Real Men don't Eat Quiche", New York, Pocket
- Wirth, N., "Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs", Prentice
- Ilson, R., "Recent Research in Text Processing", IEEE Trans.
Prof. Commun., Vol. PC-23, No. 4, Dec. 4, 1980.
- 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 Nostrand Reinhold, 1971, p. 110.
- Dijkstra, E., "On the GREEN language submitted to the DoD",
Sigplan notices, Vol. 3 No. 10, Oct 1978.
- Rose, Frank, "Joy of Hacking", Science 82, Vol. 3 No. 9,
Nov 82, pp. 58-66.
- "The Hacker Papers", Psychology Today, August 1980.
- sdcarl!lin, "Real Programmers", UUCP-net, Thu Oct 21 16:55:16
The IBM term for ABortive END. It's what you do to bring the system
down when all else fails. Also, (jokingly) the command issued to
the system to enable the third-shift operators to leave early
(from the german Guten Abend, meaning good evening).
Real Men Don't Eat Quiche:
It's a wonderful little booklet, describing, with a lot of humor,
how a Modern Real Man can live in a world of quiche eaters.
State-of-the-art, and rather expensive, brand of food processor.
This is how FORTRAN compilers usually pass parameters to subroutines.
It's not the same as call by reference (or by name), since you are
not passing the addresses (references to) each individual parameter,
but rather both the caller and the callee know where the parameter
block is and deal with it appropriately.
`Interesting' FORTRAN constructs: An arithmetic if is a statement
IF (expression) label1,label2,label3
If expression evaluates to negative, zero, or positive, the execution
will continue at label1, label2 or label3, respectively. In
REAL FORTRAN, of course, expression is just an integer variable!
A computed GOTO is like the ON GOTO in BASIC (yuck!):
when N is an index into the list of labels. If N<0 or N>n
the following statement is executed.
An assigned GOTO is a bit different. You can assigne a label to
an integer variable using the ASSIGN statement; you can say
ASSIGN 10 TO IFOO, and then use IFOO as a label (e.g., GOTO IFOO). The
GOTO IFOO (label1,label2,...,labeln) statement branches to that
label matched by IFOO. If none is matched, execution continues. It's
used when IFOO can have been set to a variety of labels, but
you only want to branch is it has been set to some particular values.
You can say it's a set membership operation! Now, how many
CS seniors know that, I wonder!
Control Program for Microcomputers. A very antiquated (ca 1978?)
rudimentary operating system for 8080-based microcomuters. Would
have been picked up by IBM instead of MSDOS, (then called QDOS)
had the president of Digital Research not been out to lunch with
instructions not to be interrupted!
IBM messages are usually three letters (indicating the module
the error occured in), followed by a number, followed by a letter
indicating the severity of the error. I is Information. IJK is
a fictitious prefiex. The closest to that one is IKJ, which is
the MVS (then OS) nucleus, if my memory serves me right. (I actually
tried to look up this message when I was working for IBM!)
Fluorescent-orange colored liquid, kind of like orange soda without
the carbonation. Gross.
Vending-machine type of junk food. Also available at supermarket
checkout counters. These are cheese-flavored (just flavored, no
real cheese) crackers filled with rancid peanut butter or mock-cheese
spread. Usually three one-square-inch sandwiches to a package.
A brand of cookies made by Nabisco. They are `sandwich' cookies, two
~2 inch, very dark, supposedly chocolate-flavor cookies, with a
vanilla-flavored stuffing. They are very common in the US.
YA example of junk food. These are small cakes filled with some
sort of custard. They are not too bad (taste-wise).