My Past Life

It’s somewhat amusing that my career at a previous company (or a close analogue) made The Daily WTF: A Case of the MUMPS. (The comments are also interesting.)

For four and a half years I programmed in MUMPS and in Visual Basic. It was an odd combination. It paid well, though. The work was actually fairly interesting, but a lot of that was because I was both aggressive about being one of the guys to use new technologies when the opportunity presented itself, and because the industry the company served was itself interesting to learn about. (Of course, one might call that a backhanded compliment: at Apple there’s so much to learn and new things to try that if I were aggressively picking up everything that came down the pipe, I’d never have time to do any real work.)

But MUMPS also feels a lot like a shell scripting language: Objects are created on the fly, creating anonymous data structures (arrays of dictionaries and so forth) is so easy that it’s commonly done, the syntax is quirky but not so bad once you figure out a paradigm you’re comfortable with, etc. Perl, Python, and even Ruby (my favorite of the three) all have touches of these characteristics to some degree. (I’m not a big fan of Python, and when I first read about it, its line-indenting restrictions reminded me a lot of MUMPS’ peculiar code-block notation.)

Reading the WTF article, I do have to wonder whether I view those days through rose-colored glasses. If I were to go back to programming in MUMPS (or M as it’s often called these days), would I be able to put up with the low-tech editor, the limited file sizes, the syntactic restrictions, the lack of any object-oriented programming at all?

Well, probably not. Especially since I’ve drunk the Objective-C kool-aid.

(Sent to me by Mark.)

5 thoughts on “My Past Life”

  1. I know this post is kind of old, but I only just found your blog. I worked with you in 1996 – 1997, before moving out to Boston to work at InterSystems. My favorite expression of yours was, “works as programmed.”

    I still work with MUMPS and its successors, so it’s amusing to read the horrified comments attached to that article. It’s amazing how emotional people get over programming languages in general, and syntax in particular.

    Take Python, for instance. I only have two problems with the indent thing, both minor: it makes one-liners less useful, and there are ambiguities that foil automatic indenters (although Python mode in Emacs does a good job).

    The next (current?) generation of language wars will focus more on the bundled libraries. Java’s popularity certainly isn’t due to its syntax or expressiveness. Similarly, Objective-C’s popularity has as much to do with Cocoa as anything else. (Personally, I’m lukewarm to Cocoa, but I like the simplicity of Objective-C, especially compared to C++.)

    I haven’t read all of your posts, but I gather you’re working at Apple now. Do you plan to write about that, or is verboten?

  2. Hi Jon! I’m sorry to say I don’t remember you at this point, although your name is familiar.

    “Works as programmed” actually came from my first boss, a few years earlier. I still use it today on occasion. 🙂

    I have trouble with Python’s indenting scheme, and a few other problems with it. However, I picked up Ruby earlier than Python, and took to it like a fish to water (possibly because it closely resembles what I like about ObjC and Java), so it may be that I just felt it suffers by comparison with a language I had already mastered. Its syntactic similarities to MUMPS did strike me as being amusing, though (in a “who could possibly have thought this would be a good idea in the 1990s?” sense).

    Yes, I’ve been at Apple for 8 years now. I don’t often write about it, mainly because I know how closely Apple is watched by fans of the company, and I want to be careful not to divulge any information which is confidential, nor make any implications which might be misconstrued (or even properly construed). This mostly leaves me able only to talk about things which have already shipped, which tends not to be very interesting to talk about. Well, not to me, anyway. 🙂

  3. I was the tall red head with the ratty slippers (still am, actually) who worked with Tracy and Liz. I kept in touch with them for a year, but the email eventually bounced, so I guess they moved on.

    For all the razzing MUMPS gets, there’s a lot of money in it. Our former employer got a big piece of a billion-plus dollar sale recently. (I’m sure my current employer’s piece was much smaller.)

    I noticed that Apple has a profile in its itpro section about a customer that migrated from MUMPS on Linux to MySQL on OS X. I find the relationships in this industry interesting. A DBMS vendor, for example, may simultaneously be a partner and a competitor with IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Red Hat, and others. My workstation is an iMac, I have an MSDN subscription, and I use a lab with 31 flavors of Unix, VMS, and Windows.

    So, about this confidential information: if I were to put in a request for a new iMac, any reason I should wait a week or two? Just kidding. Hope you’re having fun on the other coast.

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