I’ve been reading Coders at Work on and off, and it is a good read for coders who want to learn how coders, who they admire, think and approach programming.

Two favorite nuggets of mine so far are from JWZ and Brad Fitzpatrick who are definitely two of my programming heroes:

About taking things apart

Seibel:

Is there a key skill programmers must have?

Zawinski:

Well, curiosity – taking things apart. Wanting to know what’s going on under the hood. I think that’s really the basis of it. Without that I don’t think you get very far. That’s your primary way of acquiring knowledge. Taking something apart and looking at it is how you learn to build your own. At least for me. I’ve ready very few books about computers. My experience has been digging through source code or reference manuals. I’ve got a goal and, alright, to do this I need to know what this thing does and what this thing does. And I’ll just sort of random-walk through that until I find where I’m going.

How to improve oneself

Seibel:

Do you have any advice for self-taught programmers?

Fitzpatrick:

Always try to do something a little harder, that’s outside your reach. Read code. I heard this a lot, but it didn’t really sink in until later. There were a number of years when I wrote a lot of code and never read anyone else’s. Then I get on the Internet and there’s all this open source code I could contribute to but I was just scared shitless that if it wasn’t my code and the whole design wasn’t in my head, that I couldn’t dive in and understand it.

Then, I was sending in patches to Gaim, the GTK instant-messenger thing, and I was digging around that code and I just saw the whole design. Just seeing parts of it, I understood. I realized, after looking at other people’s code, that it wasn’t that I memorized all my own code; I was starting to see patterns. I would see their code and I was like, “Oh, OK. I understand the structure that they’re going with.”

Then I really enjoyed reading code, because whenever I didn’t understand some pattern, I was like, “Wait, why the fuck did they do it like this?” and I would look around more, and I’d be like, “Wow, that is a really clever way to do this. I see how that pays off.” I would’ve done that earlier but I was afraid to do it because I was thinking that if it wasn’t my code, I wouldn’t understand it.

I read the "Start-up Nation" book last week. This book was so engrossing that I read it within 2 days, keeping aside everything else.

After reading this book, I started seeing the patterns about Israel being high tech hotspot, for example consider just two pieces of news in the last 3-4 days: Apple buying Anobit, an Israeli company, for $500 million as well as building a research center in Israel and Cornell won the bid to build a university in New York city… in collaboration with Technion university of Israel.

What is important

This book taught me the importance and inter-play of:

  • Entrepreneurism
  • Venture capital
  • Being committed to own business and country at same time
  • When people are pushed for survival, only then do they show the zeal for entrepreneurism and trade – otherwise nation becomes lazy
  • Size of country does matter
  • Government policies
  • Immigration
  • Technology as future growth
  • Multiple fields learning
  • Defense Forces
  • Liberalization and freedom of speech

To highlight in a bit more detail, I have picked a few quotes and insights from each chapter:

0. Introduction

  • Story of Shimon Peres and Shai Agassi pitching Better Place to auto manufacturers – Better Place is re-thinking electric vehicles by making fuel stations swap out your battery with a charged one instead of pumping petrol or diesel into the car, highly ambitious, executed first in Israel, now in China, etc.

1. Persistence

  • Story of "Fraud Sciences" company pitching to Paypal to use their fraud detection service – Paypal ended up buying them so that the competition doesn’t get them – idea came from founders who were soldiers in the Israeli army hunting down terrorists – they found hunting frauds easier.
  • Chutzpah
  • Israeli attitude and informality flow also from a cultural tolerance for what some Israelis call "constructive failure" or "intelligent failures." Most local investors believe that without tolerating a large number of failures, it is impossible to achieve true innovation. In the Israeli military, there is a tendency to treat all performance – both successful and unsuccessful – in training and simulations, and sometimes even in battle, as value-neutral. So long as the risk was taken intelligently, and not recklessly, there is something to be learned.
  • Story of how Intel’s chip design vision changed purely because of doggedness of the Israeli Intel office to convince higher-ups and how that eventually saved the company

2. Battlefield Entrepreneurs

  • As usual in the Israeli military, the tactical innovation came from bottom up – from individual tank commanders and their officers. It probably never occurred to these soldiers that they should ask their higher-ups to solve the problem, or that they might not have the authority to act on their own. Nor did they see anything strange in their taking responsibility for inventing, adopting, and disseminating new tactics in real time, on the fly. Yet what these soldiers were doing was strange. If they had been working in a multinational company…
  • Company commander is also the lowest rank that must take responsibility for a territory. As Farhi puts it, "If a terrorist infiltrates that area, there’s a company commander whose name is on it. Tell me how many twenty-three-year-olds elsewhere in the world live with that kind of pressure… How many of their peers in their junior colleges have been tested in such a way? How do you train and mature a twenty-year-old to shoulder such responsibility?
  • In the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), there are even extremely unconventional ways to challenge senior officers. "I was in Israeli army units where we threw out the officers," Oren told us, "where people just got together and voted them out. I witnessed this twice personally. I actually liked the guy, but I was outvoted. They voted out a colonel." When we asked Oren in disbelief how this worked, he explained, "You go and say, ‘We don’t want you. You’re not good.’ I mean, everyone’s ona first-name basis… You go to the person above him and say, ‘That guy’s got to go.’… It’s much more performance-oriented than it is about rank.

3. The People of The Book

  • Almost every Israeli trekker in Bolivia is likely to come through El Lobo (restaurant), but not just to get food that tastes like it’s from home, to speak Hebrew, and to meet other Israelis. They know they will find something else there, something even more valuable: the Book. Though spoken of in singular, the Book is not one book but an amorphous and evolving collection of journals, dispersed throughout some of the most remote locations in the world. Each journal is a handwritten "Bible" of advice from one traveler to another. And while the Book is no longer exclusively Israeli, its authors and readers tend to be from Israel.
  • Israeli wanderlust is not only about seeing the world; its sources are deeper… there is another psychological factor at work – a reaction to the physical and diplomatic isolation. Until recently, Israelis could not travel to a single neighbouring country…
  • For the same reason, it was natural for Israelis to embrace the Internet, software, computer, and telecommunications arenas. In these industries, borders, distances, and shipping costs are practically irrelevant. As Israeli venture capitalist Orna Berry told us, "High-tech telecommunications became a national sport to help us defend against the claustrophobia that is life in a small country surrounded by enemies." … "Today, Israeli companies are firmly integrated into the economies of China, India, and Latin America. Because, as Orna Berry says, telecommunications became an early priority for Israel, every major telephone company in China relies on Israeli telecom equipment and software…

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