REAL PROGRAMMER'S DONT USE PASCAL
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 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
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 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
* Real Programmers do Artificial Intelligence programs in
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
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 assigned GOTO's.
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 yo 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 papers.
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
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 VIbeing 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 subroutine.
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 structured programming.
* Source language debuggers. Real Programmers can read core
* 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
* 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 importance (literally!).
* Real Programmers work for Los Alamos National Laboratory,
writing atomic bomb simulations to run on Cray I
* Real Programmers work for the National Security Agency,
decoding Russian transmissions.
* 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 Russkies.
* 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
areable 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
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 forthe
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, and 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
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
* 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
* 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 time.
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 office.
* 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 interesting pages.
* Taped to the wall is a line-printer Snoopy calendar for the
* 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
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, and then finishing the rest in the last week,
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
* 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
* 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
program- mers the world over. Even more subtle tricks, like
adding struc- tured 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 subtle 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 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 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 Books, 1982.
Wirth, N., "Algorithms + Data Structures =
Programs", Prentice Hall, 1976.
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
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 1982
ST NEWS editorial note: This article was originally published in
the American humorous disk magazine "Nutworks". To them the
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