Saturday, October 28, 2006

Top Ten Wired Software Stories of All Time

Well, here it is, my guaranteed to make it to the Digg front page post.

1. Scripting on the Lido Deck
Issue 8.10 | Oct 2000
By Steve Silberman

One luxury cruise ship. A hundred hard-coding geeks. Seven sleepless nights. Welcome to the floating conference called Perl Whirl 2000.

This was the article that inspired me, so it gets the top spot.

2. O, Engineers!
Issue 8.12 | Dec 2000
By Evan Ratliff

Twenty years ago, Tracy Kidder published the original nerd epic. The Soul of a New Machine made circuit boards seem cool and established a revolutionary notion: that there's art in the quest for the next big thing.

Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine is one of the best books written about the software/hardware development process. Reading it changed my world, at least for a little while. I was maybe 13 when I read Soul of a New Machine. After that, what had been a mild interest in computers turned into a passion. The engineers working at Data General were my heroes. I have a few books that I reread again and again and Kidder’s masterpiece is pretty close to the top of the list. It was also the first Pulitzer prize winner I read and I’ve been a faithful follower of the prize ever since.

3.The Java Saga
Issue 3.12 | Dec 1995
By David Bank

Sun's Java is the hottest thing on the Web since Netscape. Maybe hotter. But for all the buzz, Java nearly became a business-school case study in how a good product fails. The inside story of bringing Java to the market.

Java was among the first languages I tried as a young computer science student, and while I may have resented it at the time, the story of its creation is both fascinating and enlightening. Wired describes the story well and with a mild geek factor. In respect and remembrance of the dot com bubble I’ve tried to down play the business side of things in my choices but in some articles it still shines through.

4. Leader of the Free World
Issue 11.11 | November 2003
By Gary Rivlin

How Linus Torvalds became benevolent dictator of Planet Linux, the biggest collaborative project in history

I don’t know how you can have a list of inspirational tech stories without putting one about the little guy from Finland who changed the world in the top 5. If this were a list based entirely on inspiration I think this would be a contender for number 1.

5. Code Warrior
Issue 7.12 | Dec 1999
By Chip Bayers

Microsoft's head honcho for Windows 2000 seeks perfection. It's a lonely crusade.

O.K so rounding out the top five is an article about the great satan. Some may question how a story about Microsoft can be inspiring. I ask you to think back to the days before the antitrust case and before the browser wars. I remember reading Coupland's Microsurfs and thinking, perhaps wrongly, this is really cool. Bill Gates is a nerd that made it and we should respect him for that. It’s a good article about an interesting story. The geek factor is moderate, so it takes spot number 5.

6. The Quest for Meaning
Issue 8.02 | Feb 2000
By Steve Silberman

The world's smartest search engine took 250 years to build. Autonomy is here.

Having strayed a little from the computer science world, I’m shortly to become a librarian and as a librarian how can I not put a story about searching on the list. Making it even better is that it’s not about Google, every librarian’s worst nightmare. This also fits well with the next story on the list. Academia can be inspiring too.

7. The Cutting Edge
Issue 4.03 | Mar 1996
By Michael Meloan

In computer science at Stanford, academic research can be a battle - to the death.

It takes Wired’s impassioned writing to make computer science faculty interesting. None the less, it’s good to find the inspirational in stories that aren't about making money.

8.When We Were Young
Issue 6.09 | Sep 1998
David S. Bennahum

In the Golden Age of ASCII, kids could be king.

O.K so maybe I wasn’t alive in the era this article is about, but I wish I was. Some people dream of the good old days when there were no computers, because there were no computers. I know a librarian or two that fits this description. Others however, dream of those days because they wish they could witness the technology’s birth. I don’t long for the past because of safer streets, but because I want an Altair.

9.Open War
Issue 9.10 - Oct 2001
By Russ Mitchell

It started as a crusade for free source code. Linux zealots turned it into a full-frontal assault on Microsoft. Now the battle for the desktop could snatch defeat from the jaws of moral victory.

I think the flagship of the open-source era deserves to make it onto the list twice and heck, what’s more inspiring then a real life David and Goliath battle.

10.Meet the Bellbusters
Issue 9.11 - Nov 2001
By Steve Silberman

Network-geek power couple Judy Estrin and Bill Carrico helped build the Internet as we know it. Now they want to safeguard its soul.

Not so much about coding, but still an interesting story and certainly important to all those web 2.0 web service developers out there.


This all started a few weeks ago when I began looking through old Wired articles for mentions of Marshal Mcluhan. I had been reading some of his older stuff out of interest and decided to turn it into a paper on new social technology and the institution of the library in North American society. In Wired’s early days they often published articles about their patron saint and I was curious what they had to say.

Anyway, as I was paging through these dusty volumes I recalled, and subsequently found, an article that had inspired me to such a degree, that after a year long hiatus from anything computer related, I jumped back in and started taking courses at the University of Toronto. It felt strange being the only political science major in a room full of math and computer science geeks, but it was a world which I had always longed to be part of. It took a couple of months but I got back into the swing of things and had a great time. I loved swiping my way into the computer lab or logging into the UofT machines via SSH. I got a great deal out of the experience and ironically bumped up my GPA.

I write this because I owe it all to the excellent writing and editing of the Wired staff and contributors. I have since met a number of others who, while not interested in computer science as a career or field of study, have benefited or could benefit from a similar experience. So, as a reward to those who have, and a source of inspiration to those who have not, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten best or most inspirational programing and software engineering articles from Wireds past.

I’ve done my best to look through as many of Wired featured articles as possible. However I may have missed some and would certainly appreciate suggestions. Just so I don’t get a host of emails from irate readers I’ll explain my criteria. Firstly, I looked for articles that spoke to the software development process, the development of some software/language in particular or a personality important in the software development world. I judged the articles based on their level of inspirational content, their level of detail and the degree to which they “got their geek on”. By the last criteria I mean the degree to which they got into the technical details.

Some may disagree with my rankings based on these criteria and to them I say, the overriding criteria for any top ten list is the personal preference of the reviewer. If I liked it, it made it on the list. Having said that, I still want input, both on the articles and on your own sources of written inspiration. The more comments the better.


Steve Silberman said...

Ian, I am very flattered to have made your Wired list. Could you please drop me an email at Thanks so much.

glyn moody said...

Well, it may be immodest of me to suggest it, but if you enjoyed Wired's later article on Linus, you might enjoy the original one I wrote in 1997: