[ A letter to the editor of Datamation, volume 29 number 7,
July 1983. I’ve long ago lost my dog-eared photocopy, but I believe
this was written (and is copyright) by Ed Post, Tektronix,
Wilsonville OR USA.
Back in the good old days– the "Golden Era" of computers– it
was easy to separate the men from the boys (sometimes called "Real
Men" and "Quiche Eaters" in the literature). During this period, the
Real Men were the ones who understood computer programming, and the
Quiche Eaters were the ones who didn’t. A real computer programmer
said things like "DO 10 I=1,10" and "ABEND" (they actually talked in
capital letters, you understand), and the rest of the world said
things like "computers are too complicated for me" and "I can’t relate
to computers– they’re so impersonal". (A previous work  points out
that Real Men don’t "relate" to anything, and aren’t afraid of being
But, as usual, times change. We are faced today with a
world in which little old ladies can get computers in their
microwave ovens, 12 year old kids can blow Real Men out of the
water playing Asteroids and Pac-Man, and anyone can buy and even
understand their very own personal Computer. The Real Programmer
is in danger of becoming extinct, of being replaced by high
school students with TRASH-80s.
There is a clear need to point out the differences between the
typical high school junior Pac-Man player and a Real Programmer. If
this difference is made clear, it will give these kids something to
aspire to– a role model, a Father Figure. It will also help explain
to the employers of Real Programmers why it would be a mistake to
replace the Real Programmers on their staff with 12 year old Pac-Man
players (at a considerable salary savings).
The easiest way to tell a Real Programmer from the crowd is by
the programming language he (or she) uses. Real Programmers use
Fortran. Quiche Eaters use Pascal. Nicklaus Wirth, the designer of
Pascal, gave a talk once at which he was asked, "How do you pronounce
your name?". He replied, "You can either call me by name, pronouncing
it ‘Veert’, or call me by value, ‘Worth’." One can tell immediately by
this comment that Nicklaus Wirth is a Quiche Eater. The only
parameter passing mechanism endorsed by Real Programmers is
call-by-value-return, as implemented in the IBM/370 Fortran G and H
compilers. Real Programmers don’t need all these abstract concepts to
get their jobs done– they are perfectly happy with a keypunch, a
Fortran IV compiler, and a beer.
- Real Programmers do List Processing in Fortran.
- Real Programmers do String Manipulation in Fortran.
- Real Programmers do Accounting (if they do it at all) in
- Real Programmers do Artificial Intelligence programs in
If you can’t do it in Fortran, do it in assembly language. If
you can’t do it in assembly language, it isn’t worth doing.
The academics in computer science have gotten into the
"structured programming" rut over the past several years. They claim
that programs are more easily understood if the programmer uses some
special language constructs and techniques. They don’t all agree on
exactly which constructs, of course, and the example they use to show
their particular point of view invariably fit on a single page of some
obscure journal or another– clearly not enough of an example to
convince anyone. When I got out of school, I thought I was the best
programmer in the world. I could write an unbeatable tic-tac-toe
program, use five different computer languages, and create 1000 line
programs that WORKED (Really!). Then I got out into the Real World.
My first task in the Real World was to read and understand a 200,000
line Fortran program, then speed it up by a factor of two. Any Real
Programmer will tell you that all the Structured Coding in the world
won’t help you solve a problem like that– it takes actual talent.
Some quick observations on Real Programmers and Structured
- Real Programmers aren’t afraid to use GOTOs.
- Real Programmers can write five page long DO loops without
- Real Programmers like Arithmetic IF statements– they make
the code more interesting.
- Real Programmers write self-modifying code, especially if
they can save 20 nanoseconds in the middle of a tight loop.
- Real Programmers don’t need comments– the code is
- Since Fortran doesn’t have a structured IF, REPEAT …
UNTIL, or CASE statement, Real Programmers don’t have to
worry about not using them. Besides, they can be simulated
when necessary using assigned GOTOs.
Data structures have also gotten a lot of press lately. Abstract
Data Types, Structures, Pointers, Lists, and Strings have become
popular in certain circles. Wirth (the above mentioned Quiche Eater)
actually wrote an entire book  contending that you could write a
program based on data structures, instead of the other way around. As
all Real Programmers know, the only useful data structure is the
Array. Strings, Lists, Structures, Sets– these are all special cases
of arrays and can be treated that way just as easily without messing
up your programming language with all sorts of complications. The
worst thing about fancy data types is that you have to declare them,
and Real Programming Languages, as we all know, have implicit typing
based on the first letter of the (six character) variable name.
What kind of operating system is used by a Real Programmer?
CP/M? God forbid– CP/M, after all, is basically a toy operating
system. Even little old ladies and grade school students can
understand and use CP/M.
Unix is a lot more complicated of course– the typical Unix
hacker never can remember what the PRINT command is called this
week– but when it gets right down to it, Unix is a glorified
video game. People don’t do Serious Work on Unix systems: they
send jokes around the world on UUCP-net and write Adventure games
and research papers.
No, your Real Programmer uses OS/370. A good programmer can
find and understand the description of the IJK305I error he just
got in his JCL manual. A great programmer can write JCL without
referring to the manual at all. A truly outstanding programmer
can find bugs buried in a 6 megabyte core dump without using a
hex calculator. (I have actually seen this done.)
OS is a truly remarkable operating system. It’s possible to
destroy days of work with a single misplaced space, so alertness
in the programming staff is encouraged. The best way to approach
the system is through a keypunch. Some people claim there is a
Time Sharing system that runs on OS/370, but after careful study
I have come to the conclusion that they were mistaken.
What kind of tools does a Real Programmer use? In theory, a Real
Programmer could run his programs by keying them into the front panel
of the computer. Back in the days when computers had front panels,
this was actually done occasionally. Your typical Real Programmer
knew the entire bootstrap loader by memory in hex, and toggled it in
whenever it got destroyed by his program. (Back then, memory was
memory– it didn’t go away when the power went off. Today, memory
either forgets things when you don’t want it to, or remembers things
long after they’re better forgotten.) Legend has it that Seymore
Cray, inventor of the Cray I supercomputer and most of Control Data’s
computers, actually toggled the first operating system for the CDC7600
in on the front panel from memory when it was first powered on.
Seymore, needless to say, is a Real Programmer.
One of my favorite Real Programmers was a systems programmer
for Texas Instruments. One day, he got a long distance call from
a user whose system had crashed in the middle of saving some
important work. Jim was able to repair the damage over the
phone, getting the user to toggle in disk I/O instructions at the
front panel, repairing system tables in hex, reading register
contents back over the phone. The moral of this story: while a
Real Programmer usually includes a keypunch and line printer in
his toolkit, he can get along with just a front panel and a telephone
In some companies, text editing no longer consists of ten
engineers standing in line to use an 029 keypunch. In fact, the
building I work in doesn’t contain a single keypunch. The Real
Programmer in this situation has to do his work with a "text editor"
program. Most systems supply several text editors to select from, and
the Real Programmer must be careful to pick one that reflects his
personal style. Many people believe that the best text editors in the
world were written at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center for use on their
Alto and Dorado computers. Unfortunately, no Real Programmer would
ever use a computer whose operating system is called SmallTalk, and
would certainly not talk to the computer with a mouse.
Some of the concepts in these Xerox editors have been
incorporated into editors running on more reasonably named operating
systems– EMACS and VI being two. The problem with these editors is
that Real Programmers consider "what you see is what you get" to be
just as bad a concept in Text Editors as it is in Women. No, the Real
Programmer wants a "you asked for it, you got it" text editor–
complicated, cryptic, powerful, unforgiving, dangerous. TECO, to be
It has been observed that a TECO command sequence more
closely resembles transmission line noise than readable text.
One of the more entertaining games to play with TECO is to type
your name in as a command line and try to guess what it does.
Just about any possible typing error while talking with TECO will
probably destroy your program, or even worse– introduce subtle
and mysterious bugs in a once working subroutine.
For this reason, Real Programmers are reluctant to actually
edit a program that is close to working. They find it much
easier to just patch the binary object code directly, using a
wonderful program called SUPERZAP (or its equivalent on non-IBM
machines). This works so well that many working programs on IBM
systems bear no relation to the original Fortran code. In many
cases, the original source code is no longer available. When it
comes time to fix a program like this, no manager would even
think of sending anything less than a Real Programmer to do the
job– no Quiche Eating structured programmer would even know
where to start. This is called "job security".
Some programming tools NOT used by Real Programmers:
- Fortran preprocessors like MORTRAN and RATFOR. The
Cuisinarts of programming– great for making Quiche. See
comments above on structured programming.
- Source language debuggers. Real Programmers can read core
- Compilers with array bounds checking. They stifle
creativity, destroy most of the interesting uses for
EQUIVALENCE, and make it impossible to modify the operating
system code with negative subscripts. Worst of all, bounds
checking is inefficient.
- Source code maintenance systems. A Real Programmer keeps
his code locked up in a card file, because it implies that
its owner cannot leave his important programs unguarded .
Where does the typical Real Programmer work? What kind of
programs are worthy of the efforts of so talented an individual?
You can be sure that no Real Programmer would be caught dead
writing accounts-receivable programs in COBOL, or sorting mailing
lists for People magazine. A Real Programmer wants tasks of
earth-shaking importance (literally!).
- Real Programmers work for Los Alamos National Laboratory,
writing atomic bomb simulations to run on Cray I supercomputers.
- Real Programmers work for the National Security Agency,
decoding Russian transmissions.
- It was largely due to the efforts of thousands of Real
Programmers working for NASA that our boys got to the moon and
back before the Russkies.
- The computers in the Space Shuttle were programmed by Real
- Real Programmers are at work for Boeing designing the
operation systems for cruise missiles.
Some of the most awesome Real Programmers of all work at the
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Many of them know the
entire operating system of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft by
heart. With a combination of large ground-based Fortran programs
and small spacecraft-based assembly language programs, they are
able to do incredible feats of navigation and improvisation–
hitting ten-kilometer wide windows at Saturn after six years in
space, repairing or bypassing damaged sensor platforms, radios,
and batteries. Allegedly, one Real Programmer managed to tuck a
pattern matching program into a few hundred bytes of unused
memory in a Voyager spacecraft that searched for, located, and
photographed a new moon of Jupiter.
The current plan for the Galileo spacecraft is to use a gravity
assist trajectory past Mars on the way to Jupiter. This trajectory
passes within 80 +/- 3 kilometers of the surface of Mars. Nobody is
going to trust a Pascal program (or Pascal programmer) for navigation
to these tolerances.
As you can tell, many of the world’s Real Programmers work for
the U.S. Government– mainly the Defense Department. This is as it
should be. Recently, however, a black cloud has formed on the Real
Programmer horizon. It seems that some highly placed Quiche Eaters at
the Defense Department decided that all Defense programs should be
written in some grand unified language called "ADA" ((C), DoD). For a
while, it seemed that ADA was destined to become a language that went
against all the precepts of Real Programming– a language with
structure, a language with data types, strong typing, and semicolons.
In short, a language designed to cripple the creativity of the typical
Real Programmer. Fortunately, the language adopted by DoD had enough
interesting features to make it approachable– it’s incredibly
complex, includes methods for messing with the operating system and
rearranging memory, and Edsger Dijkstra doesn’t like it .
(Dijkstra, as I’m sure you know, was the author of "GOTOs Considered
Harmful"– a landmark work in programming methodology, applauded by
Pascal Programmers and Quiche Eaters alike.) Besides, the determined
Real Programmer can write Fortran programs in any language.
The Real Programmer might compromise his principles and work on
something slightly more trivial than the destruction of life as we
know it. Providing there’s enough money in it. There are several
Real Programmers building video games at Atari, for example. (But not
playing them– a Real Programmer knows how to beat the machine every
time: no challenge in that.) Everyone working at LucasFilm is a Real
Programmer. (It would be crazy to turn down the money of fifty
million Star Trek fans.) The proportion of Real Programmers in
Computer Graphics is somewhat lower than the norm, mostly because
nobody has found a use for Computer Graphics yet. On the other hand,
all Computer Graphics is done in Fortran, so there are a fair number
of people doing Graphics in order to avoid having to write COBOL
Generally, the Real Programmer plays the same way he works– with
computers. He is constantly amazed that his employer actually pays
him to do what he would be doing for fun anyway (although he is
careful not to express this opinion out loud). Occasionally, the Real
Programmer does step out of the office for a breath of fresh air and a
beer or two. Some tips on recognizing Real Programmers away from the
- At a party, the Real Programmers are the ones in the
corner talking about operating system security and how to get
- At a football game, the Real Programmer is the one
comparing the plays against his simulations printed on 11 by
14 fanfold paper.
- At the beach, the Real Programmer is the one drawing
flowcharts in the sand.
- At a funeral, the Real Programmer is the one saying "Poor
George. And he almost had the sort routine working before
- In a grocery store, the Real Programmer is the one who
insists on running the cans past the laser checkout scanner
himself, because he never could trust keypunch operators to
get it right the first time.
What sort of environment does the Real Programmer function
best in? This is an important question for the managers of Real
Programmers. Considering the amount of money it costs to keep
one on the staff, it’s best to put him (or her) in an environment
where he can get his work done.
The typical Real Programmer lives in front of a computer
terminal. Surrounding this terminal are:
- Listings of all programs the Real Programmer has ever
worked on, piled in roughly chronological order on every flat
surface in the office.
- Some half-dozen or so partly filled cups of cold coffee.
Occasionally, there will be cigarette butts floating in the
coffee. In some cases, the cups will contain Orange Crush.
- Unless he is very good, there will be copies of the OS JCL
manual and the Principles of Operation open to some particularly
- Taped to the wall is a line-printer Snoopy calendar for the
- Strewn about the floor are several wrappers for peanut
butter filled cheese bars– the type that are made pre-stale
at the bakery so they can’t get any worse while waiting in
the vending machine.
- Hiding in the top left-hand drawer of the desk is a stash of
double-stuff Oreos for special occasions.
- Underneath the Oreos is a flow-charting template, left there
by the previous occupant of the office. (Real Programmers
write programs, not documentation. Leave that to the maintenence people.)
The Real Programmer is capable of working 30, 40, even 50
hours at a stretch, under intense pressure. In fact, he prefers
it that way. Bad response time doesn’t bother the Real
Programmer– it gives him a chance to catch a little sleep
between compiles. If there is not enough schedule pressure on
the Real Programmer, he tends to make things more challenging by
working on some small but interesting part of the problem for the
first nine weeks, then finishing the rest in the last week, in
two or three 50-hour marathons. This not only impresses the hell
out of his manager, who was despairing of ever getting the project
done on time, but creates a convenient excuse for not doing
the documentation. In general:
- No Real Programmer works 9 to 5. (Unless it’s the ones at
- Real Programmers don’t wear neckties.
- Real Programmers don’t wear high heeled shoes.
- Real Programmers arrive at work in time for lunch.
- A Real Programmer might or might not know his wife’s name.
He does, however, know the entire ASCII (or EBCDIC) code
- Real Programmers don’t know how to cook. Grocery stores
aren’t open at three in the morning. Real Programmers survive
on Twinkies and coffee.
What of the future? It is a matter of some concern to Real
Programmers that the latest generation of computer programmers
are not being brought up with the same outlook on life as their
elders. Many of them have never seen a computer with a front
panel. Hardly anyone graduating from school these days can do
hex arithmetic without a calculator. College graduates these
days are soft– protected from the realities of programming by
source level debuggers, text editors that count parentheses, and
"user friendly" operating systems. Worst of all, some of these
alleged "computer scientists" manage to get degrees without ever
learning Fortran! Are we destined to become an industry of Unix
hackers and Pascal programmers?
From my experience, I can only report that the future is
bright for Real Programmers everywhere. Neither OS/370 nor Fortran
show any signs of dying out, despite all the efforts of Pas-
cal programmers the world over. Even more subtle tricks, like
adding structured coding constructs to Fortran, have failed. Oh
sure, some computer vendors have come out with Fortran 77 compilers,
but every one of them has a way of converting itself back
into a Fortran 66 compiler at the drop of an option card– to
compile DO loops like God meant them to be.
Even Unix might not be as bad on Real Programmers as it once
was. The latest release of Unix has the potential of an operating
system worthy of any Real Programmer– two different and
subtly incompatible user interfaces, an arcane and complicated
teletype driver, virtual memory. If you ignore the fact that
it’s "structured", even ‘C’ programming can be appreciated by the
Real Programmer: after all, there’s no type checking, variable
names are seven (ten? eight?) characters long, and the added
bonus of the Pointer data type is thrown in– like having the
best parts of Fortran and assembly language in one place. (Not
to mention some of the more creative uses for #define.)
No, the future isn’t all that bad. Why, in the past few
years, the popular press has even commented on the bright new
crop of computer nerds and hackers ( and ) leaving places like Stanford
and MIT for the Real World. From all evidence, the spirit of
Real Programming lives on in these young men and women. As long as
there are ill-defined goals, bizarre bugs, and unrealistic schedules,
there will be Real Programmers willing to jump in and Solve The
Problem, saving the documentation for later. Long live Fortran!
 Feirstein, B., "Real Men don’t Eat Quiche", New York, Pocket Books,
 Wirth, N., "Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs", Prentice Hall,
 Ilson, R., "Recent Research in Text Processing", IEEE Trans. Prof.
Commun., Vol. PC-23, No. 4, Dec. 4, 1980.
 Finseth, C., "Theory and Practice of Text Editors – or – a Cookbook
for an EMACS", B.S. Thesis, MIT/LCS/TM-165, Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, May 1980.
 Weinberg, G., "The Psychology of Computer Programming", New York, Van
Nostrand Reinhold, 1971, p. 110.
 Dijkstra, E., "On the GREEN language submitted to the DoD", Sigplan
notices, Vol. 3, No. 10, Oct 1978.
 Rose, Frank, "Joy of Hacking", Science 82, Vol. 3, No. 9, Nov 82, pp.
 "The Hacker Papers", Psychology Today, August 1980.
I would like to thank Jan E., Dave S., Rich G., Rich E. for
their help in characterizing the Real Programmer, Heather B.
for the illustration, Kathy E. for putting up with it, and
atd!avsdS:mark for the initial inspiration.