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Ken Thompson Seibel: I would imagine. It s sort of like an oral exam. Do you suppose you ve ever run into people who just didn t have the personality that can deal with that, independent of their programming ability Thompson: No, I don t think it s independent of programming. It would be if I started asking them classical computer-science kind of questions, but that s not what I m asking them. I m asking them to describe something they ve done that they ve spent blood on. I ve never met anybody who really did spend blood on something who wasn t eager to describe what they ve done and how they did it and why. I let them pick the subject. I don t pick the subject, so I m the amateur and they re the professional in this subject. If they can t stand an amateur asking them questions about their profession, then they don t belong. Seibel: What are you doing here at Google Thompson: Infrastructure. Operating-systems kind of stuff. Glue between the pieces. I have a charter for anything I want. The challenge is to get a bunch of unreliable machines to work like a reliable multiprocessor machine. I guess that s the closest thing. Seibel: Isn t the point of Google s famous MapReduce machinery that it s shared-nothing message-passing rather than a shared memory Thompson: Well, it s a process that has well-known semantics and no feedback loops. If you have a reliable structure to do that, you can fit a lot of problems into that structure. Seibel: And are you working on things within that kind of framework Thompson: No, it s just trying to keep the burden of reliability off the individual programmers. It s a real tough challenge. All the software here has layers and layers and layers of what happens if this doesn t work, what happens if that doesn t work. What happens if I don t work who kills me and who starts up, who does what. I would guess way more than 50 percent of the code is the what-if kind. Seibel: So your goal is to have that half of the code go away
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Ken Thompson Thompson: Well, it would be hidden somewhere. It would apply in a systematic way to the other code. Hopefully. It s a hard job. Seibel: Do you like working here at Google Thompson: Parts of it I like, very much. But parts of it are just ponderous because there s money involved in bugs and there s money involved in lots of the stuff. The size is unimaginable. Like day one you kind of get something crippling along and day two you ve got two million users. You just can t imagine such a thing. Seibel: And you re actually on the production side. As opposed to being in Google Labs, which might be more akin to your past at Bell Labs. Thompson: But I m not actually production either. I m in projects that will become production. But I don t babysit them after they ve gone. Probably my job description whether I follow it or not, that s a different question would be just to find something to make life better. Or have some new idea of new stuff that replaces old stuff. Try to make it better. Whatever it is that s wrong, that takes time, that causes bugs. If there s anything in the structure of Google, anything that you can put your finger on that could be done better, try to do it better. Seibel: I know Google has a policy where every new employee has to get checked out on languages before they re allowed to check code in. Which means you had to get checked out on C. Thompson: Yeah, I haven t been. Seibel: You haven t been! You re not allowed to check in code Thompson: I m not allowed to check in code, no. Seibel: You just haven t gotten around to it, or you have philosophical objections to the Google coding standard Thompson: I just haven t done it. I ve so far found no need to. Seibel: So you re doing your stuff in your own sandbox Do you mostly do your stuff in C
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Ken Thompson Thompson: I write mostly in C. I do all my test stuff and toy stuff in C while Google is C++, strictly C++. It s no big deal programming in C++, but I don t like it. I resist it. Seibel: You were at AT&T with Bjarne Stroustrup. Were you involved at all in the development of C++ Thompson: I m gonna get in trouble. Seibel: That s fine. Thompson: I would try out the language as it was being developed and make comments on it. It was part of the work atmosphere there. And you d write something and then the next day it wouldn t work because the language changed. It was very unstable for a very long period of time. At some point I said, no, no more. In an interview I said exactly that, that I didn t use it just because it wouldn t stay still for two days in a row. When Stroustrup read the interview he came screaming into my room about how I was undermining him and what I said mattered and I said it was a bad language. I never said it was a bad language. On and on and on. Since then I kind of avoid that kind of stuff. Seibel: Can you say now whether you think it s a good or bad language Thompson: It certainly has its good points. But by and large I think it s a bad language. It does a lot of things half well and it s just a garbage heap of ideas that are mutually exclusive. Everybody I know, whether it s personal or corporate, selects a subset and these subsets are different. So it s not a good language to transport an algorithm to say, I wrote it; here, take it. It s way too big, way too complex. And it s obviously built by a committee. Stroustrup campaigned for years and years and years, way beyond any sort of technical contributions he made to the language, to get it adopted and used. And he sort of ran all the standards committees with a whip and a chair. And he said no to no one. He put every feature in that language that ever existed. It wasn t cleanly designed it was just the union of everything that came along. And I think it suffered drastically from that.
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Ken Thompson Seibel: Do you think that was just because he likes all ideas or was it a way to get the language adopted, by giving everyone what they wanted Thompson: I think it s more the latter than the former. Seibel: It seems there are a lot of people who say, Gosh, C++ is terrible. Yet everyone uses it. For instance, it s one of Google s four official languages. Why do folks continue to use it if it s so bad Thompson: I don t know. I think it s losing at Google. Now there are more people who don t like it than like it. Seibel: And they switch to Java Thompson: I don t know. There s almost no replacement for it. They complain, but they don t switch. Graduate students coming out the people who are hired by Google know it. So it s hard to do anything else. That s the reason it keeps going it saves a tremendous amount of education, reeducation. It gets people productive faster. Seibel: Are there other languages that you enjoy, or have enjoyed, programming in Thompson: All of the funny languages at one point I ve taken a step in. Like for solving equations and stuff: Maple and Macsyma, things like that. For strings, SNOBOL. Anyway, I ve played with dozens and dozens of languages, if they do something that s interesting. Seibel: And are there development tools that just make you happy to program Thompson: I love yacc. I just love yacc. It just does exactly what you want done. Its complement, Lex, is horrible. It does nothing you want done. Seibel: Do you use it anyway or do you write your lexers by hand Thompson: I write my lexers by hand. Much easier. Seibel: Have you ever done any literate programming, a la Donald Knuth
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Ken Thompson Thompson: No. It s a great idea, but it s almost impossible to do in practice. Seibel: Why Thompson: It s two representations of the same program that are often out of phase and conflict with each other. And there s no way to resolve it. If something is written well in a programming language, then it s readable. It suffices. The comments don t need to be that parallel. The comments are maybe for algorithms, or if you do something tricky it d probably be more in the form of a warning or something. I m not a big, gross comment kind of guy. It s legendary. Seibel: When I interviewed him, Knuth said the key to technical writing is to say everything twice in complementary ways. So I think he sees that as a feature of literate programming, not a bug. Thompson: Well if you have two ways, one of them is real: what the machine executes. One of them is not. Only if one is massively more brief way than the other is it worthwhile. If it s the same volume, you read the one that works. If one is much more terse, much less precise, and you can get out of it what you need, then that s great. But very often you can t get out of it what you need you really need the nitty-gritty and then you go to the other. Depending on what you re after, you read one or the other. But to try to have microscopic descriptions of an algorithm, one in the programming language and one in English maybe Knuth can do it, but I can t. Seibel: Have you ever read any of his literate programs Thompson: Just his stuff in the early papers. Nothing recent. Seibel: And are there books that you think are particularly important that either were important to you or that you would recommend people to read Thompson: I don t read beginning programming books, so I have trouble recommending such things. If I have to learn a new language or something I ll try to find a book. I prefer much denser books that just give me the
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Ken Thompson syntax and semantics rather than chatting me up and telling me what s good style and what s bad style. When I taught, I would have to select a textbook for my course and would read all of the textbooks in the area and have to make a selection. So at two points in time, I knew the basic literature for those courses. But outside that I don t read. Seibel: When you were inventing Unix you had your plan to do the four pieces that would actually give you an operating system. Then your wife and kids went away, leaving you free to hack for a month. I assume you put in some long hours in that month. Why do we do that Is it necessary Is it just because it s fun Thompson: You do it when you re driven. I don t think I could have not done it. The other thing is when the wife and kid are around you have this synchronizing to a 24-hour cycle. When they go away, I don t have a 24hour cycle. There s nothing that keeps me and the sun together. And so I typically sleep on a 27- or 28-hour cycle, sleeping 6 hours. So I drift. When I get to sleep until I wake up I m in better shape to work than if I get to sleep and get up when the kid starts screaming. Seibel: So that s when you re driven by a project and you wake up wanting to get to the computer to start writing more code. But people also work long hours because we have this idea that we ve got to get this product out the door and the way to do it is for everyone to work 80, 100 hours a week. Thompson: That generates burnout. Excitement programming, I never ever felt stress. I ve been in other situations too where deadlines external deadlines generate stress. That s not fun; I don t like that. Seibel: You burn out at the end, which is obviously bad, but in terms of getting things done in the short term, does it work Thompson: Usually you re in a position where such a thing is continual. That as soon as that deadline is over another one starts coming up over the horizon. If you re constantly under deadlines like that, then the next one
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Ken Thompson you ll have less enthusiasm and pretty soon you just can t live like that. I can t. Seibel: Tied up with trying to meet deadlines is being able to estimate how long things are going to take. Can you estimate how long it s going to take to write a given piece of code Thompson: It depends on whether I m writing it for me or writing it for production. I can if I m writing for me. I can live with the quirks. I can not do the extra ten percent. I can avoid the gaping holes that I know are in there. Things like that. I can produce it and then clean it up at leisure and still use it. Maybe that s a different definition of finished. But if you re doing it for production then usually there are other people involved and coordination I can t estimate that. Seibel: In one 1999 interview you said you didn t think much of Linux, and got the Linux guys all up in arms. What do you think of it now about a decade later, and it s taking over the world Thompson: It s much more reliable there s no doubt about that. And I ve looked at the code occasionally. I don t look at it as much as I used to. I used to, for Plan 9. They were always ahead of us they just had massively more resources to deal with hardware. So when we d run across a piece of hardware, I d look at the Linux drivers for it and write Plan 9 drivers for it. Now I have no reason to look at it. I run Linux. And I occasionally look at code, but rarely, so I can t really tell whether the quality has gotten better or not. But certainly the reliability has gotten better. Seibel: Do you ever read code just for fun Thompson: In the past I used to; less so now. When I first came here I did it just to try and get the feel of the place. You ve got to. There s so much unsaid that you ve got to know. Seibel: Would you pick a program and completely understand it, or were you just sort of looking for how do they do things around here Thompson: A little bit of both. I d certainly try to pick the big libraries at first. I d look at the main programs of some of the things. The programming
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Ken Thompson style here at Google is so bizarre. They take a subroutine call, package it as an RPC, and store it somewhere static. Which means anybody can call it at any time for any reason. And then they call generic listening kind of code and somebody somewhere gets a message, goes off and finds that, and makes that subroutine call. Seibel: So that s a mechanism for distributed computation. Thompson: Yeah. That s all this place does. It s very hard to read. So you go off and you start reading the binding code. And then this code. And then the general IPC. That gets you a handle into where you can actually start reading stuff and understanding stuff. Before that, you can t understand a thing. Seibel: When you work on a team, what s the structure that you like Thompson: Just working with good, compatible people. Seibel: When you re working with compatible people, do you favor strong code ownership: I wrote this piece of code; it is mine and I m responsible for it, or more shared ownership: We all own this code together and anyone can do what they see fit. Thompson: I ve always worked halfway in between. There s somebody who owns it and if you have a problem with it, you mail them or tell them and their job is to fix it. And then at some point they disappear, they don t want it, they don t fix it, they re not responsive then you fix it. The catchphrase is, You touched it last. You own it. So it s halfway between. You don t have a bunch of people going in and modifying the code willy-nilly. It s all filtered through an owner. But that owner can change pretty easily. Seibel: These days there are folks who advocate pair programming, meaning two people working at one keyboard. Have you ever worked that way Thompson: Something small can be done like that. Very often I ll be typing and somebody else, who will obviously be faster at it than I, will sit down and they ll type and I ll talk. I ve done that on orders of minutes to hours,
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Ken Thompson very few hours, to get one thing done that both of us could have done separately. Seibel: And did you find that the result was better or it got done faster Thompson: The result isn t better. Probably debugging is faster as you re typing, someone can catch a bug over your shoulder. So I think it will generate fewer bugs as you go. But I didn t find it as a philosophy as a way to go it just happens. Seibel: Do you still enjoy programming Thompson: Yes. I like small programs. Small, meaning you can do it in a month. If you re trying to do some monster task that takes a year, I can t keep in it that long. Seibel: Was that always the case, or have you lost the energy for longer projects Thompson: I don t know. It depends on the actual thing. Something big that takes years, like an operating system, you subdivide that and there are lots of fun pieces, so that counts as multiple small things as opposed to one big thing. But there are lots of things that are just one big thing, and those I think I ve always found difficult. I need gratification, feedback. And if you have to sit there and work and work and work for days, months and see nothing except a pile of code, then I have trouble doing that. Seibel: You ve mostly worked in research and it seems you ve had a lot of latitude to work on what you like, but did it change when it become a job Did it take any of the fun out of it Thompson: No. It s always been fun, and mostly because I just selected what I wanted to do. And even when it was a job, back in college, there were tons and tons of jobs available. It seemed to me that there were tons of people who were doing something, whatever it is, and they needed some little programming task done on the side to aid them. So they were perfect for me. They were little tiny jobs that I could get into, get in and out in days and pick and choose which one I wanted to take.
Ken Thompson I think my first one was a humanities professor cataloging Homer s work. And he had The Iliad and The Odyssey on cards. He wanted word frequencies and counts essentially statistical analysis of these two works. And that was fun. It was text processing, which just wasn t done by computers in those days. So that was my first odd job. Seibel: In a 1999 interview you talked about how you had told your son he should go into biology instead of computers because you thought computers were played out. That was almost ten years ago. How do you feel about that now Thompson: I feel the same. Nothing much new has happened in computers that you couldn t have predicted. The last significant thing, I think, was the Internet, and that was certainly in place in 99. Everything has expanded the speed of individual computers is still expanding exponentially, but what s different Seibel: Reading the history of Unix, it seems like you guys basically invented an operating system because you wanted a way to play with this computer. So in order to do what today might be a very basic thing, such as write a game or something on a computer, well, you had to write a whole operating system. You needed to write compilers and build a lot of infrastructure to be able to do anything. I m sure all of that was fun for its own sake. But I wonder if maybe the complexity of modern programming that we talked about before, with all these layers that fit together, is that just the modern equivalent of, Well, first step is you have to build your own operating system At least you don t have to do that anymore. Thompson: But it s worse than that. The operating system is not only given; it s mandatory. If you interview somebody coming out of computer science right now, they don t understand the underlying computing at all. It s really, really scary how abstract they are from what a computer is or even the theory of computing. They just don t understand it. Seibel: I was thinking about your advice to your son to go into biology instead of computing. Isn t there something about programming the intellectual fun of defining a process that can be enacted for you by these magical machines that s the same whether you re operating very close to the hardware at a very abstract level
Ken Thompson Thompson: It s addictive. But you wouldn t want to tell your kid to go into crack. And I think it s changed. It might just be my aging, but it seems like when you re just building another layer on top of another layer on top of another layer, you don t really get the benefit of writing, say, a DFA. I think by necessity algorithms new algorithms are just getting more complex over time. A new algorithm to do something is based on 50 other little algorithms. Back when I was a kid you were doing these little algorithms and they were fun. You could understand them without it being an accounting job where you divide it up into cases and this case is solved by this algorithm that you read about but you don t really know and on and on. So it s different. I really believe it s different and most of it is because the whole thing is layered over time and we re dealing with layers. It might be that I m too much of a curmudgeon to understand layers.
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