The Architect of Modern Algorithms

Cody O’Loughlin:

Good code has both substance and style. It provides all necessary information, without extraneous details. It bypasses inefficiencies and bugs. It is accurate, succinct and eloquent enough to be read and understood by humans.

But by the late 1960s, advances in computing power had outpaced the abilities of programmers. Many computer scientists created programs without thought for design. They wrote long, incoherent algorithms riddled with “goto” statements — instructions for the machine to leap to a new part of the program if a certain condition is satisfied. Early coders relied on these statements to fix unforeseen consequences of their code, but they made programs hard to read, unpredictable and even dangerous. Bad software eventually claimed lives, as when the Therac-25 computer-controlled radiation machine delivered massive overdoses of radiation to cancer patients.

By the time Barbara Liskov earned her doctorate in computer science from Stanford University in 1968, she envied electrical engineers because they worked with hardware connected by wires. That architecture naturally allowed them to break up problems and divide them into modules, an approach that gave them more control since it permitted them to reason independently about discrete components.