March 21, 2005

The Bug by Ellen Ullman

I don't usually have fiction book reviews here, but for this one I'll make an exception. The Bug by Ellen Ullman is quite simply, a novel about how crazy it is being a software developer. It revolves around the a software project in the mid-1980's and a huge, impossible bug that creeps into the user interface code. The bug only appears sporadically and unpredicably, make it very difficult to figure out the underlying cause. The main characters in the novel are the programmers, Ethan Levin, and the tester, Berta Walton. Each of them have troubled personal lives that parallel the progress of the bug, while the view each other with distrust and suspicion. The soap opera aspects of their lives doesn't work as well as the portrait of the programmer's life; at about page 300 (of 350) we learn something about Ethan's relationship with his girlfriend that totally changes our view of him and the root cause of their breakup, which I think is unfair to the reader. Nevertheless, the characters and plot are certainly strong enough to support the more interesting aspect of the novel from our point of view here. For those of you who want to understand what it's like to be a programmer, working with flakey systems, uncertain requirements, killer deadlines and and the limitations of the human capacity to understand very large and complex systems, this is the novel for you. Ullman is a former software developer and it shows. Having been a software developer myself for 12 years, it rings very true.

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