For me, the most interesting thing about working in technology over an extended period of time is seeing what changes and what doesn’t. Things that seemed obvious and essential at one time become useless and redundant. Other parts cycle through our awareness over and over, but under different names. Not just software, but practices too—what does Agile even mean now?
I’ve been reading The Computer Boys Take Over, by Nathan L. Ensmenger, which is a fascinating look at how we got from the era of WWII ballistics computing to the modern software industry. I’m struck by how many of the conversations and concepts we have around programming and software development today really date back to the formation of many companies and institutions in the 1960s and 70s. It also illuminated a question I’ve been thinking about for a while: if the first computer programmers were women, why is the industry so male-dominated now?
Our articles for this issue tackle similar topics. “Women in Programming: Erasure and visibility” looks at how our narratives about who writes code are shaped, and “A Library, Its Users, and Its Technology” examines how a single institution, the National Library of Medicine, has navigated changes in technology and their users over time. Other articles put legacy software work into context: “Legacy Systems as Old Cities” compares the process of maintaining a large code base over time to that of urban development. “The Art and Labor of Maintenance” gets into the details of how we can be effective code maintainers.
In editing these pieces, I learned a lot about how we keep our data accessible as the systems around it change, and how we can continue to learn from long-lived software projects. I hope you’ll learn something and gain new insights too.
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