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Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  921 ratings  ·  180 reviews
The never-more-necessary return of one of our most vital and eloquent voices on technology and culture, from the author of the seminal Close to the Machine.

When Ellen Ullman moved to San Francisco and became a computer programmer in the late 1970s, she was joining an idealistic, exclusive, and almost exclusively male cadre that had dreams and aspirations to change the worl
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published August 8th 2017 by MCD
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Average rating 3.95  · 
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Manuel Antão
May 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

My Y2K with SAP R/3: "A Life in Code - A Personal History of Technology" By Ellen Ullman

If you want to get a glimpse of what was the Y2K Bug craze in 1999 Ullman’s chapter on it is a must.

Millenniums may ask: “What was the Y2K bug?” Well, as one who was actively working in IT at the time, it basically was the number of seriously heavyweight IT-reliant- and IT-provider-based organizations running crapped out, moth-eaten, disaster-ready
Julie Ehlers
Ellen Ullman's memoir Close to the Machine is one of the books I remember most vividly from the 1990s. She followed it up with two novels; I admired but didn't love 2003's The Bug, but I thought By Blood, from 2012, was fantastic. When I found out about Life in Code, I was ecstatic, expecting Ullman would take the writing chops she'd honed with her novels and combine it with the fascinating subject matter of Close to the Machine, resulting in an an artful, up-to-the minute document of our times. ...more
Peter Tillman
Jan 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Cat-loving techies
A pretty good, if variable, collection of essays. Many were previously published in pretty obscure places, and the author has revised many of the older ones. They were written between 1994 and last year, and document her ups and downs in the computer-programming business, and in life. The downs are mostly related to the white males (and Asians) who dominate the business. In Ullman's view, they are mostly misogynistic and trapped in a time-warp. But she really likes tech and writing code, and doe ...more
Alyssa Frazee
Dec 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I don’t really give five star reviews and I was hesitant about this one, but this book made me feel things. I especially loved the essay “Dining with Robots” because it painted cooking and programming (art and science?) as two different things, valuable in their own right but certainly not the same, which I thought showed an all-too-rare appreciation for magic outside of science and logic and tech. I also felt like Ellen articulated much of what scares me and puts me off about tech, but does so ...more
Katherine Ginensky
Jan 19, 2021 rated it really liked it
This was a collection of essays that were written from 1994 - 2017. The earlier essays were all 10/10!! There's something so interesting about early internet history, especially from someone with a programming background (as opposed to Lurking which was written by a regular ol' internet user).
I learned some of the details of Y2K that I had never heard before (it wasn't a hoax!!) and why the dot com bust ACTUALLY happened (hello Tesla 2021). Hearing the Ellen's thoughts on programmers' role in i
Jul 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
As our world becomes more and more technically dominated, it's important that we educate ourselves on what happens behind the scenes. Ellen does just this in Life in Code. This book covers everything from Y2K to AI to why there is so little diversity in tech. An immensely valuable and important read. ...more
Andrew Louis
Jan 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir, essays, tech
MOOC chapter is amazing
Oct 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: math-tech
Her description of tech culture was relatable from my experiences at school and work, and her personal stories were enlightening. Her criticism of tech culture made me think deeply about its social and economic effects - how it actively excludes populations and widens the gap between the rich and the poor.
Apr 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: abandoned
I got about halfway through this and abandoned it.

I have been writing software my entire professional life, which at this point amounts to about 35 years. I think I'm pretty much a contemporary of the author in that we started coding around the same time in our lives. I have an undergrad degree in mathematics, and an MS where I specialized in AI. I worked for one of the "big 4" AI companies of the 80s. I say all this as background, so that when I say I disagree with what the author writes, that
Sep 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Another must-read, and a pleasure to read, given the quality of her thinking and writing. And I say that despite the fact that it is a collection of pieces from across three decades, only one of which was written in early 2017. If you are in my age group, and particularly if you lived in San Francisco, you will recognize some of what the author is writing about. If you are younger, you may benefit from her perspective -- which sounds like I'm saying 'you kids today...,' but what I mean is, don't ...more
Augustin Erba
Feb 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I programmed computers back in the 80s and I have been longing for someone who would put that experience in words. This book does that. I usually dislike recycled literature, but in this case, I admit that the selection of essays and articles came together. I mostly enjoyed the stories about programming, the other, more general musings, was similar of listening in on a conversation, which was fine, and her thinking is much more interesting and fact-based than, say Steven Pinker. She also makes a ...more
Aug 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a very thoughtful book of essays by a woman who has long experience as a software engineer while morphing into a career as a novelist and essayist. The book comprises chapters that span Ullman's career from the 1990s up through 2017. She remembers her life in programming and the toxic environment that still prevails for women in technology careers. In the middle of this, she also talks about artificial intelligence, philosophy, government policy and the future of the Internet, the perver ...more
Feb 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: faves
A diverse range of thought-provoking and reflective essays on technology in relation to society, culture, and personal experiences. I loved the measured tone, the details, and the special moments of recognizing an interior thought expressed by someone else. Reading this made me both marvel at computer science and question its trajectory. I wrote a more comprehensive review here if you're interested. ...more
Warren Mcpherson
A rich philosophical discussion of technology. A striking contrast to literature whose philosophical moments rarely seem to reach past adolescence.
Explores questions about the mindset of technology. The genius and self-doubt. Questions about artificial intelligence, intelligence itself, and the essential elements of our humanity. Her description of the experience of working as a programmer had many vignettes that were familiar. The TRS-80, working in the attic of a building, problems in old for
Mar 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
The only negative thing about these essays is that they're all paced the same; Ullman has a very deliberate style that occasionally felt too slow to me. This may be because of my familiarity with many of the ideas and areas she's writing about, and I never was completely bogged down.

The early essays are frighteningly prophetic (maybe anyone who was in a similar position would've had the same thoughts, but Ullman articulates them extremely well) and also just frightening. How far we've come. What
Melanie  H
Oct 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
My rating: 4.75

If ever there were a book that perfectly captures why diversity of perspective is so very necessary to the conversation, this is that book.

Part memoir, part discussion on the unfolding history of technology and programming, Ullman brings a unique voice to the conversation about the forces shaping the design of technology and the greater Bay Area.

This collection of essays made me want to throw down my smartphone (has it really only been ten years?) while simultaneously planting t
Sweta Agrawal
Sep 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Read via audiobook.

GREAT book. At most, maybe half or so is spent explicitly discussing tech culture and its lack of diversity, etc, but the other half is insightful analysis/commentary about tech and computers and life. A real love of coding and computers that made me want to dive deeper and learn more. Beautifully written with catchy phrases (i.e. "thought fart" in reference to Donald's tweets). Really inspirational and thought-provoking. First time I finally understood what y2k actually was.
Sep 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An interesting collection of essays about programming and technology through the years. I really enjoyed ‘The Rise and First Fall of the Internet’ written in 1998. Ullman's fears about the Internet and its affect on our culture are largely true today. I also enjoyed Ullman's personal stories about being a female programmer in a male dominated field in the 1970’s-90’s. Sadly much of what she experienced is probably still true today. If you’ve been in the field of technology for a while, this book ...more
Oct 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a really wonderful collection of essays spanning Ullman's decades in the Silicon Valley and San Francisco tech scenes. Sometimes these kinds of collections can be disjointed or not cohesive, feeling like an afterthought. Life in Code is so well edited and structured that it avoids those problems entirely, presenting a coherent idea through a handful of pieces written across some 25 years.

As worldviews go, Ullman's has that rare benefit of coming from somebody who is extremely thoughtful
I picked this up because Ellen Ullman was on my favorite podcast (Note to Self) and I liked some of the things she said. This book was interesting both for the historic perspective (she was a computer programmer in the 70s and has watched technology and culture evolve together), and also for her insights into life, culture, technology, privacy, and activism. I could probably re-read this book every year and still glean a lot of insight and perspective from it, and I hope it will be one I will re ...more
interesting! early days of code, Y2K crisis, the impact of tech startups in San Francisco. I really want to read her other memoir now. Here is my favourite quote about Ullman's entry into programming:

"Yet I had a cocky courage and went ahead, armed with little but some knowledge about video, the understanding that I can was not afraid of machines, and an honors thesis on Macbeth." p240

Who said humanities were worthless!??
Candace Dorn
Feb 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
From the geeky life of computer programmers to serious theoretical discussions of technology, this book has it all! Entertaining and well written, you don't need to be a data scientist or programmer to enjoy. If you exist in this crazy thing we call the Information Age, there is something in this book for you. ...more
Jenny GB
Aug 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
A great series of essays that look at the evolution of technology from the 90's to now. Ullman gives a very personal look at her experiences and thoughts on the changing state of our world through the eyes of technology. ...more
Sep 25, 2017 rated it liked it
Ullman is exactly as mad as you think she ought to be about everything.
Feb 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Vicky by: Noticed this on the shelf next to Claire Evans's Broad Band at White Whale Books in Pittsburgh
Incredible, well-written collection of essays on programming, having a sort of work affair over email, graphical interfaces like Microsoft wizards that attempt to replace code and make everything this out-of-box template, the Y2K bug that I never fully understood about how systems couldn't accommodate more than two digits in YY and its real-life impact, San Francisco gentrification observations, human vs. machine (the challenge of AI), the one on Sadie the cat made me tear up a little on the bus ...more
Feb 17, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: programming
This is a book whose essays span from the 90s to the present, and what's strange is that the oldest essays feel the freshest and most prescient.

I feel that Ellen Ullman is better at revealing the truths of my profession than anyone else I've read. Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents and The Bug are both favorites of mine that have sparked a lot of reflection over the years. The essays in this book about programming itself or the work environments of programming are excellent,
Apr 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
The beginning was a bit slow at first, till I understood where the author was going with the rest of the book. It has many interesting discussions like chapters about AI and what it means for us. More than a book about technology, this is a book about what it means to be human as technology evolves and tries to replicate our behaviours and patterns. Are we a set o pre-programmed actions? What is the "self"? What is our identity? The book discusses not only the point of view of the author, but al ...more
Sep 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This isn't really a memoir, but a collection of essays, some more interesting and relevant than others. But Ullman writes from a unique perspective, someone passionate about programming who sees the cracks and the flaws in our Brave New World given over to the machine. I particularly enjoyed her essay about AI and robots that learn by mimicking human reactions. Also, I appreciate her comments about the way technology is a perpetuator of the economic divide and has not been used to address and me ...more
Cady Johnson
Oct 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
An interesting read. As a female working in technology (although not an engineer myself) I found the first 1/3 to be very interesting and helped explain some phenomena I have observed. 4 our of 5 stars because there was a middle section which talked about AI for what seemed like a really long time without a lot of the personal narratives and writing style to which I had become accustomed and enjoyed from this writer. The last third came back to relating personal stories and expressed some feelin ...more
Jun 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An engaging, non-linear extended essay about technology development, the author's life as a software engineer -- both the code and the workplace reality of being a woman in almost entirely male-dominated profession -- and a big warning about how the use of the internet, apps, web sites have taken over our lives, driven us apart and in some places replaced actual reality. Ullman goes into the have-and-have notes nature of tech hotbeds like San Francisco, where venture-funded, almost entirely whit ...more
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Ellen Ullman is the author of By Blood, The Bug, a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine, based on her years as a rare female computer programmer in the early years of the personal computer era. She lives in San Francisco.

Articles featuring this book

We all have our reading bucket lists. James Mustich's 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die is bound to seriously expand that list...
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“I fear for the world the Internet is creating. Before the advent of the web, if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains, or move from one badly furnished room to another in a series of safe houses. Physical reality—the discomfort and difficulty of abandoning one’s normal life—put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches, and extreme political parties.

But now, without leaving home, from the comfort of your easy chair, you can divorce yourself from the consensus on what constitutes “truth.” Each person can live in a private thought bubble, reading only those websites that reinforce his or her desired beliefs, joining only those online groups that give sustenance when the believer’s courage flags.”
“We build our computers the way we build our cities—over time, without a plan, on top of ruins.” 2 likes
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