In 2007 BCS interviewed IBM’s Grady Booch - Turing Award medal winner, IBM alumni and inventor of the Unified Modeling Language. Brian Runciman MBCS meets Booch again.

It became evident during our 2020 podcast recording that we left it too long to follow up with Grady Booch.

In addition to re-running some of the 2007 questions to see what has changed, we also discussed matters of the moment in software engineering, ethics, IT professionalism and software career development.

The conversation was so interesting and wide-ranging that we struggled to narrow down the title for the podcast and, indeed, this piece. Some of the options were:

  • Playing wac-a-mole with the brogrammers
  • Inclusive language: curing whitelist / blacklist and master / slave
  • Talking with MC Hammer on the nature of consciousness.
  • Not being libellous about Elon Musk
  • AI is not an existential risk
  • GPT 3 passes the Trump test

This all comes up alongside a chat about embodied cognition; the computing version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos; GPT 3 passing the Trump test, but not the Turing test; the differing ethical frameworks across the world; and ethics needing to be represented in executable code not just nice powerpoint presentations.

Booch’s view is that, with software woven into the interstitial framework of our world, every line of code comes to represent an ethical decision. Along the way he namechecks Stuart Brand and Ray Kurzweil and gives some tips on inspirational women to follow such as Angie Jones and Abeba Birhane.

For BCS members, Booch also gives tips on possible focuses for a career and what you really need to succeed. For example, the rise of Kubernetes and containers was discussed and the fact that you don’t need a university degree to be a great developer.

It’s much easier now to make a difference in software – from the sciences to individuals at home involved with code movements, many more people are programming. These people are not trained directly but are embracing computing.

Booch tells us what he wished he invented, his view on Apple products, how to progress a career in IT and finishes with a rather poetic view on making a difference as an IT professional. Listen via Apple Podcasts, Acast or Spotify.

Grady Booch, the 2007 interview

Back in 2007, Brian Runciman MBCS interviewed Booch ahead of the IBM Fellow’s Turing Lecture. Here’s the original interview:

Perhaps you could tell us what you are working on currently?

There are two areas that I’m giving my attention to. The overarching thing that brings them together is addressing what one can do to improve the efficiency of developing, delivering and evolving complex software systems.

There is a gap between vision and execution; we can dream up many things that have a software element to them, but to turn that into running systems is a challenge. Pure computer science can limit us, so can social, legal and moral things. But where most organisations stumble is at the cusp of design and organisation - those are the two places where I’m spending my attention.

In the area of design one of the greatest advances in the last ten years is the observation of design patterns, the ability to look at things at a higher level of abstraction that transcends the original programming language. Not that languages are unimportant, but to address complexity we have to move up levels of abstraction.

Usability is always an issue. Will we get the raising of abstraction to a level where people can intuitively use software?

If I took somebody from the 1800s and put them in this room now they would have incredible cultural difficulties because they wouldn’t understand the things around us - your iPod, the projector and the like. But we are now birthing a generation of people who never knew a time when the internet didn’t exist.

So, while someone in the 1800s may know about the care and feeding of horses, for example, someone born in this generation grows up surrounded by computers. There is a raising of the tide so that for the next generation texting, browsing the web and booting a computer is like turning on a coffee machine - feeding a horse as it were.

So, in every generation this culturisation happens. It’s part of a given environment. Is it the right one? Are the interfaces we see on the web and the like the perfect ones? There is no such perfect thing in engineering discipline but what we have is a result of historical, hysterical and emotional confluence. What it is, is what we have.

Software becomes part of the atmosphere and the usability we struggle with today will just become second nature.

BCS is pursuing professionalism in IT - what are your thoughts on this?

My life was saved by software. When my nephew died at age 20 I had a CT scan, which revealed I had an aneurysm. If I had been born a generation before, there would have been no such diagnostic tools. So I relied on the skill of the medical staff around me and the technology.

The CT scan and the software inside it saved my life. I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable if that had been developed by a hoard of people who are just scriptkiddies for which there was no intentionality in building that system. I’d probably be dead.

We are in an age of increasing, if not total, dependency of software. As that increases, it calls on us to show increasing professionalism in our space. It would be unthinkable here in London to have regular reports on buildings falling down - and yet that’s what happens in the software world.

There are economic pressures that push organisations towards building software that is better, faster and cheaper. But we can do better. So professionalism is key. It is a tremendous privilege and responsibility to be a software engineer. It’s a privilege because the things we do change the world; it’s a responsibility for the same reason. The world relies upon us.

BCS is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.What development in computing do you think was the most exciting or ground-breaking in the last 50 years?

I can’t pick just one. The public may identify one thing, such as the web, but as an insider I think the progression of our field has been the progression of science. More evolutionary than revolutionary. People may point to the development of the web, but that is not a point in time. I had my first email address in 1979 via the Arpanet and Arpa published a little book, perhaps 15 pages, which gave everyone’s email address in the world.

We couldn’t quite do that these days. The web has been evolutionary. Similarly, let’s go back in time. I was at Bletchley - first can I say thank you to the UK for inventing the computer - and if you look at Colossus we can look at the things going on around it and it’s still evolutionary, not revolutionary. Design patterns are the most important for me in the last five to ten years. The development of software has parallels to the development and maturation on other sciences.

Which past discovery would you have liked to have made yourself?


Who in the IT industry, or outside it, inspired you or was a role model for you?

There are people in the industry who inspired me. When I was 10 or 11 there was an article in Life magazine about a robot called Shaky and in it they highlighted the work of Marvin Minsky. I thought this was so cool. I knew at that point in time that I wanted to go into computers. So I scoured the literature, of which there was not much in 1966, and I read several books on digital electronics. There is a British computer scientist called George Walter who built these little robots, so I was influenced by his work.

Age 12 I built my first computer, scrounging parts here and there. And here’s the postscript: I convinced the Computer Museum that they should include software to preserve source code for future generations. So I relayed this story to the board of the museum and the curator said, ‘turn around and look in the box behind you.’ It was the original Shaky that had inspired my work. Dr Minsky, Dr Brookes, Dr Hoare, Edgar Dijkstra - these are my heroes.

What recent developments by others have impressed you most?

I am continuously delighted by Apple and their ability to build wonderful products. At home I have banned PCs because I prefer to use operating systems that work. I have only Linux or Macs in my home network. I have a 2Tb file server, two T1s that come into the house, devices that allow me to look at my security cameras from a distance… so I’m very, very wired.