Sunday, December 04, 2005

EWD: A Personal Reflection

The title is a link to the EWD archives at the University of Texas, a bit superfluous perhaps, for the same link is in the links section of this blog, but it's there for the reader's ready reference.

I want to quote here one sentence from the opening page of that site:
In addition, Dijkstra was intensely interested in teaching, and in the relationships between academic computing science and the software industry.
While I was a long time reader of Dijkstra's books, this was where I connected with him some time in the early 80's as I was in the middle of developments in architecting a series of strategic transaction processing and Decision Support tools for the shipping company where I worked. After leaving the company I was finally recognized as the architect of all their strategic systems, which were in operation for some 27 years in the end.

I made a visit to Austin on April 3rd 1985 to do an interview with EWD for a now defunct magazine, HollandUSA, which was distributed by KLM in its executive class. My own interest was then very acute because I was struggling daily with a company where the management completely misunderstood both the potential and limitations of IT. This is the territory I explored in depth with Dijkstra for what was presumed to be an executive magazine. In personal correspondence Dijkstra later called this interview the best of his life. Unfortunately the magazine never saw fit to publish it, even though they paid for the rights including for my trip to Austin. Quite evidently they did not understand the importance or the relevance of this brilliant countryman of theirs.

My visit with him was a fresh breeze. It was everything I expected and more, including the discovery that we went to the same high school, the Gymnasium Erasmianum in Rotterdam, and one of his early nostrums was that if you want to become a programmer, learn Latin.

I am writing this note simply as one of these life experiences that seems worth sharing, and as an invitation for the reader to explore Dijkstra's work, be it through the archives at UT, or through his books. He taught from a profound understanding that programming was a branch of applied mathematics, and it was this understanding that made him very perceptive in terms of the opportunities and limitations of programming in the business world, because many meaty business problems are quite intractable from a mathematical point of view, and simplification is done at the user's risk, and usually at the expense of profitability.

Dijkstra's life in the deeper sense was spent in the pursuit of making people think. Making people think through a problem before they put pen to paper. He was popular, but his students sometimes disliked him as much as they--grudgingly one would think-- respected him, because he insisted on handwritten papers and would not accept output from a word processor. His reasoning: by the number of corrections he could see if the person was thinking before they wrote, something he considered an essential skill in programming. So he lived what he taught, and made his students do the same. His extensive notes that can be found in the archives are often almost an equivalent of zen koans for the world of IT, and one could only hope that future generations of IT architects keep EWD's dedication to the basics high on their list of priorities, for otherwise IT solutions are bound to wander down the path towards irrelevance and early obsolescence.

For me personally, it was Dijkstra's sense of what computer science and programming are and what they aren't which served to define the near end of the digital divide, and keep a clear focus on the effective, reasonable and functional use of computing in business. It helped me understand the difficulties of implementation (the digital divide at home - full of executives who fight IT all the while supporting it in name) to the risks of over-promising and pursuit of inappropriate--for not mathematically tractable--applications.

Copyright © 2005 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.


Apurva said...


I came across this article from the EWD archives. I have been studying EWDs work for a couple of years now and at the moment I am in Eindhoven, The Netherlands to continue my studies of this discipline.

It is always nice to meet other people who are enthusiastic about EWDs ideas and this comment is just my way of getting in touch with you!

My colleague and I have a website where we publish our own series of documents, analogous to the EWDs. You might be interested in having a look at it.

Keep in touch,

monn said...

He sure was a great scientist (or programmer?)

Paolo said...

Your interview is great, really. Dijkstra's thoughts about computer science role in industry, and about the perceived distance between theory and application is still of grat interest today. Perhaps not too much has changed since 1985...

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Houston said...

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