Today's Glimpse Into the World of Software Writing

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Two years ago, Mark Bernstein was part of the stellar guest-blogger team in this space, when I was holed up in China in a fever of book-writing. In his day job, Mark Bernstein is the head of Eastgate software and the creator of a program I use every day, Tinderbox.

He is in his own own fever of composition now, preparing a new version of Tinderbox. On his site he has a fascinating account of how he went about adding a particular feature to this new release. Here's the headline:

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If you have any interest in software, I think you'll find this worth reading. It reminded me in many ways of the months I once spent on a Microsoft program-design team. But much more broadly it is part of the endlessly engrossing category of "how things work" in the world.

I won't give my full speech on that topic right now, but I will say that for me one of the big appeals of journalism is the opportunity and excuse to meet people in far-flung roles and ask: OK, can you tell me exactly, step by step by step, how you [decide on questions for the SAT / figure out how much weight you can take out of a car's design so it uses less gas / decide when software is "bug-free enough" to be released / create an airplane with a parachute / teach a computer to "understand" speech or automatically group related news articles / set up a factory that employs 250,000 people / decide what to put into a half-hour news broadcast, back when those existed / anything else.]

Almost any organized human activity is much more complicated and interesting than you would expect, once you examine it in its particularity. For instance: I have never taken mail delivery for granted after my earliest paying jobs as a parcel-post sorter and then letter carrier at the local Post Office. People scoff at the USPS, but it pulls off some amazing feats of volume management -- even as today's volume sadly goes down.

This brings me back to Mark Bernstein's chronicle. The next time you grumble at some aspect of the tech world -- "wow, this is ugly UI!" "why won't this damned program do what I want?" -- reflect on the long series of choices and trade-offs that go into even the simplest-seeming feature of program. As a reminder, here is where you can read more.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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