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How to be a Programmer: A Short, Comprehensive, and Personal Summary (mines.edu)
162 points by ColinWright on May 17, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments

Cheeky side note: it'd be nice if the author could program their web server to send the correct character set so that the © symbol doesn't show up as �. It's being served with:

    Content-Type:text/html; charset=UTF-8
whereas the charset is actually in ISO-8859-1.

Unsure of the charset standards history, but article is from 2003 and hosted on an edu domain. So possibility since then site has been moved around?

Good call. I sent an email with a UTF-8 version of his article attached to the address listed at http://samizdat.mines.edu/howto/, but it bounced. Any ideas for how to contact him?

As a Mines alum I can say I damn good first step to becoming a programmer is surviving a school as tough as Mines (if you're academically minded). I graduated with a chem degree but decided to switch to web development about a year and a half ago, and if there's one thing that school really taught me how to do was be a good learner which ended up being an awesome asset in trying to get hired.

Shorter: learn, think, code, debug, solve, share, enjoy.

I presume the author is female, according to her use of the feminine pronoun in referring to programmers generally. Nice to get a female perspective. I appreciate her emphasis on all the qualities beyond coding itself that contribute to a good programmer.

I've actually noticed only a weak correlation at best between gender of the writer/speaker and the generic pronoun e uses. It's pretty common for people of the progressive set to use the feminine personal pronoun for programmers generically, which is a Good Thing (tm).

As opposed to the gender-neutral 'they', which is the Best Thing (that few people seem to realise).

For many years I insisted on using the grammatically correct he/she. While I sympathize with they, I cannot bring myself to use it.

Question: "Did you hear about that person on the radio before?"

Potential answer A: "What about them?" Potential answer B: "What about him or her?"

They, them, and their as singular pronouns aren't grammatically incorrect.

What I find confusing about the issue that prompted this (using 'him' or 'her' specifically, and celebrating the choice of the latter over the former) is that it will inevitably come full circle, and be no less weird for it. Technology is too female-dominated, best invert the pronouns again to make it seem fairer.

"Them" is just as incorrect in your example. "I saw a patient today. Sad case." "Really, what was wrong with them?"

Many people still like to claim that 'they' can only be used as a plural.

I personally think it just sounds awkward. Spivak pronouns can pick up all of the benefits of a singular "they" without the drawbacks, though.

I would say the opposite, actually.

"They" as a gender neutral singular pronoun is, to me, perfectly natural. I use it dozens of times a day as such without noticing.

Spivak pronouns, on the other hand, are blatantly marked, and were I to come across them in writing or speech, I'd find them very distracting.

Thanks for alerting me, indirectly, to the Spival pronouns. I think they're a good, minimalist approach to a fix, but agree they will look distracting until or unless they become commonplace.

I guessed - correctly - it would be the same Spivak who wrote the excellent Calculus textbook.

Spivak pronouns have all the benefits of a singular "they" with all the drawbacks of introducing a new set of pronouns into an established language. My experiences with programmers tell me that getting a large group of people to change syntax is not easy.

Spivak pronouns do indeed come with drawbacks (as do all proposed solutions for gender-neutral language) but I put forth that said drawbacks are minimal. The pronoun set is intuitive to English-speakers and I've found that brief explanation, if any, has been required no more than once per person before they can easily grok my usages.

I agree that from a perspective of getting more people to use them the drawbacks are greater but from the perspective of understanding the drawbacks are essentially non-existent.

I agree with you: Spivak pronouns are definitely easy to understand. I just see getting more people to use them as key to having a standard third person gender neutral pronoun in English.

One benefit that _they_ has over _e_ is that it is distinguishable from _he_ in those variants that tend to drop word-initial _h_.

Another benefit that these novel pronouns can't pick up is that _they_ is the normal gender-neutral pronoun in use by native speakers, and has been so for centuries. The Spivak pronouns are not. If you have to explicitly teach pronouns to adult native speakers, or if using a pronoun requires deliberate thought, then there is something wrong.

I can think of two drawbacks of the normal gender-neutral pronoun, but I can't see how they are solved by Spivak pronouns, in fact, one of them is much worse.

1) Some people think that singular _they_ sounds awkard. However, considering the Spivak pronouns are a novel coinage in a closed class of words, it's almost certain that more people would find them more awkward than the normal gender-neutral pronouns.

2) There is a possibility for ambiguity with the plural pronoun. However, I can't think of a situation in which it wouldn't also be ambiguous with an distinct singular gender neutral pronoun.

If epicene "they" (that is, "they" used for the purpose of gender-ambiguity) is good enough for Shakespeare, it should be good enough for any high school English teacher, or other small-minded prescriptivist.


Not that your conclusion is wrong by any means but given that Shakespeare is well known for skillfully breaking and rewriting rules he's not really a good example to persuade prescriptivists.

Many people claim UFOs exist, but that's not backed up by historical English usage.

Those are the people that don't understand that "can" and "can't" in this context is just a matter of definition. If you want to try to slow the process of language change in order to make it easier for more people to communicate with each other in English for a longer length of time before English dialects diverge into mutually unintelligible languages, it makes sense to create one official dialect of English with prescribed rules and try to get authors to follow it, a la Strunk & White or almost all dictionaries besides the OED (the OED takes a descriptivist approach to definitions based on how people actually use English). However, the existence of standardization efforts should't mean that people are somehow speaking their native dialects "incorrectly." The fact that some prescriptivist decided not to include the singular "they" in his or her artificial dialect of standardized English doesn't make the singular "they" any more "wrong" in my idiolect of English than the existence of the RnRS standard would make other dialects of Scheme like Racket "wrong," regardless of how one defines "wrong" as long as its definition is held constant. In the same way, every English speaker alive today could be said to be speaking "grammatically incorrect" Old English or Proto-Germanic (an even older language that refers to whatever language existed way back in the day that all modern Germanic languages descend from), but there's no point in making a statement like this.

That's why virtually all linguists take a descriptive approach to language and describe anything grammatical (as opposed to the phrase "grammatically correct" which would endorse the existence of a "right" and "wrong") if it sounds natural to native speakers. Unlike some linguists who love to see language change, I'm fine with people prescribing a standard and sticking to it for most written works, as long as they realize that it's just a standard and not some divine definition of "right" and "wrong." So feel free to use the singular "they" rather than artificial alternatives!

Note: Some far left scholars of gender studies demand the adoption of artificial gender-neutral pronouns (as opposed to using the singular "they") for a very different purpose--to make transgendered and intersexed people no longer "oppressed" by the English language. That is, if you already know the person you're talking about, all natural dialects of English involve saying "he" or "she" did blablabla. However, if someone identifies their gender (haha doesn't that sound so much more natural than "his or her gender"?) as something other than male or female, current English runs into a problem. Such scholars often propose "zhe" and "zher" for subject and object/possessive. But here we are just discussing situations when you are referring to an individual (i.e. a programmer or "someone" in the case above where I used the natural sounding "their") whose gender is unknown. This usage of the singular "they" happens to cover transgendered people as well.

Why do you consider using the feminine personal pronoun for programmers a Good Thing?

Original Author's Bio

Robert L. Read lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two children.

Other posters have already pointed out that the author is male; I wanted to add that it is quite common for academic computer science texts to use feminine pronouns. For example, the first slide from the following link has such an an excerpt from the classic _Operating System Concepts_ by Silberschatz and Galvin (aka the "dinosaur book"): http://main.metaprl.org/jyh/classes/cs134/cs134a/2000/slides...

a short summary?! i could learn python in the time it takes to read this.

This is short by the standard of well-considered material of durable merit warranting serious reflection.

It's not short by the standard of contemporary consumable Internet content, which is to be expected, as most of that content is not designed to enlighten. It's designed to catch your attention long enough to tell you about a brand, whether corporate (advertising) or personal (blogging).

And at any rate, serious writing implicitly asks for an investment of time in contemplation above and beyond line scan time, so its 'reading time' is only loosely coupled to the apparent length of the material. Making that investment increases the payoff, it doesn't dilute it. "You get out of it what you put into it."

If content consumption time is directly linearly related to content length, that's a pretty good flag that you're probably not getting much real value out of it. I've found low value content to be a difficult honeypot to resist even on HN, which is comparatively a pretty high-quality aggregator.

This is one of the best HN submissions I've ever seen. Given its due respect, it could change lives.

I think this is more of a meta-level write-up on being a programmer. For example, take a look at the "How to Know When to Apply Fancy Computer Science" and "How to Talk to Non-Engineers" sections.

Furthermore, I think that the writing is clear and succinct. I wish I had this when I started programming.

a short summary?! i could learn python in the time it takes to read this.

It takes a lot of work, study, reading, patience, and diverse skill-sets to become a successful programmer.

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