Screaming Bjarne

CobraBoy (
Mon, 23 Feb 1998 21:19:24 -0800

On the 1st of January, 1998, Bjarne Stroustrup gave an interview to the
IEEE's 'Computer' magazine.

Naturally, the editors thought he would be giving a retrospective view of
seven years of object-oriented design, using the language he created.
By the end of the interview, the interviewer got more than he had
bargained for and, subsequently, the editor decided to suppress its
contents, 'for the good of the industry' but, as with many of these
things, there was a leak.

Here is a complete transcript of what was was said, unedited, and
unrehearsed, so it isn't as neat as planned interviews.

You will find it interesting...
Interviewer: Well, it's been a few years since you changed the world of
software design, how does it feel, looking back?
Stroustrup: Actually, I was thinking about those days, just before you
arrived. Do you remember? Everyone was writing 'C' and, the trouble was,
they were pretty damn good at it. Universities got pretty good at teaching
it, too. They were turning out competent - I stress the word 'competent' -
graduates at a phenomenal rate. That's what caused the problem.

Interviewer: Problem?
Stroustrup: Yes, problem. Remember when everyone wrote Cobol?

Interviewer: Of course, I did too
Stroustrup: Well, in the beginning, these guys were like demi-gods.
Their salaries were high, and they were treated like royalty.

Interviewer: Those were the days, eh?
Stroustrup: Right. So what happened? IBM got sick of it, and invested
millions in training programmers, till they were a dime a dozen.

Interviewer: That's why I got out. Salaries dropped within a year, to the
point where being a journalist actually paid better.
Stroustrup: Exactly. Well, the same happened with 'C' programmers.

Interviewer: I see, but what's the point?
Stroustrup: Well, one day, when I was sitting in my office, I thought of
this little scheme, which would redress the balance a little. I thought 'I
wonder what would happen, if there were a language so complicated, so
difficult to learn, that nobody would ever be able to swamp the market
with programmers? Actually, I got some of the ideas from X10, you know, X
windows. That was such a bitch of a graphics system, that it only just ran
on those Sun 3/60 things. They had all the ingredients for what I wanted.
A really ridiculously complex syntax, obscure functions, and pseudo-OO
structure. Even now, nobody writes raw X-windows code. Motif is the only
way to go if you want to retain your sanity.

Interviewer: You're kidding...?
Stroustrup: Not a bit of it. In fact, there was another problem. Unix
was written in 'C', which meant that any 'C' programmer could very easily
become a systems programmer. Remember what a mainframe systems programmer
used to earn?

Interviewer: You bet I do, that's what I used to do.
Stroustrup: OK, so this new language had to divorce itself from
Unix, by hiding all the system calls that bound the two together so

nicely. This would enable guys who only knew about DOS to earn a decent
living too.

Interviewer: I don't believe you said that...
Stroustrup: Well, it's been long enough, now, and I believe most people
have figured out for themselves that C++ is a waste of time but, I must
say, it's taken them a lot longer than I thought it would.

Interviewer: So how exactly did you do it?
Stroustrup: It was only supposed to be a joke, I never thought people
would take the book seriously. Anyone with half a brain can see that
object-oriented programming is counter-intuitive, illogical and

Interviewer: What?
Stroustrup: And as for 're-useable code' - when did you ever hear
of a company re-using its code?

Interviewer: Well, never, actually, but...
Stroustrup: There you are then. Mind you, a few tried, in the early days.
There was this Oregon company - Mentor Graphics, I think they were called
- really caught a cold trying to rewrite everything in C++ in about '90 or
'91. I felt sorry for them really, but I thought people would learn from
their mistakes.

Interviewer: Obviously, they didn't?
Stroustrup: Not in the slightest. Trouble is, most companies hush-up all
their major blunders, and explaining a $30 million loss to the
shareholders would have been difficult. Give them their due, though, they
made it work in the end.

Interviewer: They did? Well, there you are then, it proves O-O > works.
Stroustrup: Well, almost. The executable was so huge, it took five
minutes to load, on an HP workstation, with 128MB of RAM. Then it ran like
treacle. Actually, I thought this would be a major stumbling-block, and
I'd get found out within a week, but nobody cared. Sun and HP were only
too glad to sell enormously powerful boxes, with huge resources just to
run trivial programs. You know, when we had our first C++ compiler, at
AT&T, I compiled 'Hello World', and couldn't believe the size of the
executable. 2.1MB

Interviewer: What? Well, compilers have come a long way, since > then.
Stroustrup: They have? Try it on the latest version of g++ - you won't
get much change out of half a megabyte. Also, there are several quite
recent examples for you, from all over the world. British Telecom had a
major disaster on their hands but, luckily, managed to scrap the whole
thing and start again. They were luckier than Australian Telecom. Now I
hear that Siemens is building a dinosaur, and getting more and more
worried as the size of the hardware gets bigger, to accommodate the
executables. Isn't multiple inheritance a joy?

Interviewer: Yes, but C++ is basically a sound language.
Stroustrup: You really believe that, don't you? Have you ever sat down
and worked on a C++ project? Here's what happens: First, I've put in
enough pitfalls to make sure that only the most trivial projects will work
first time. Take operator overloading. At the end of the project, almost
every module has it, usually, because guys feel they really should do it,
as it was in their training course. The same operator then means something
totally different in every module. Try pulling that lot together, when you
have a hundred or so modules. And as for data hiding. God, I sometimes

can't help laughing when I hear about the problems companies have making
their modules talk to each other. I think the word 'synergistic' was
specially invented to twist the knife in a project manager's ribs.

Interviewer: I have to say, I'm beginning to be quite appalled at all
this. You say you did it to raise programmers' salaries? That's obscene.
Stroustrup: Not really. Everyone has a choice. I didn't expect the thing
to get so much out of hand. Anyway, I basically succeeded. C++ is dying
off now, but programmers still get high salaries - especially those poor
devils who have to maintain all this crap. You do realize, it's impossible
to maintain a large C++ software module if you didn't actually write it?

Interviewer: How come?
Stroustrup: You are out of touch, aren't you? Remember the typedef?

Interviewer: Yes, of course.
Stroustrup: Remember how long it took to grope through the header files
only to find that 'RoofRaised' was a double precision number? Well,
imagine how long it takes to find all the implicit typedefs in all the
Classes in a major project.

Interviewer: So how do you reckon you've succeeded?
Stroustrup: Remember the length of the average-sized 'C' project? About
6 months. Not nearly long enough for a guy with a wife and kids to earn
enough to have a decent standard of living. Take the same project, design
it in C++ and what do you get? I'll tell you. One to two years. Isn't
that great? All that job security, just through one mistake of judgement.
And another thing, the universities haven't been teaching 'C' for such a
long time, there's now a shortage of decent 'C' programmers. Especially
those who know anything about Unix systems programming. How many guys
would know what to do with 'malloc', when they've used 'new' all these
years - and never bothered to check the return code. In fact, most C++
programmers throw away their return codes. Whatever happened to good ol'
'-1'? At least you knew you had an error, without bogging the thing down
in all that 'throw' 'catch' 'try' stuff.

Interviewer: But, surely, inheritance does save a lot of time?
Stroustrup: Does it? Have you ever noticed the difference between a 'C'
project plan, and a C++ project plan? The planning stage for a C++
project is three times as long. Precisely to make sure that everything
which should be inherited is, and what shouldn't isn't. Then, they still
get it wrong. Whoever heard of memory leaks in a 'C' program? Now finding
them is a major industry. Most companies give up, and send the product
out, knowing it leaks like a sieve, simply to avoid the expense of
tracking them all down.

Interviewer: There are tools...
Stroustrup: Most of which were written in C++.

Interviewer: If we publish this, you'll probably get lynched, you
do realise that?
Stroustrup: I doubt it. As I said, C++ is way past its peak now, and no
company in its right mind would start a C++ project without a pilot trial.
That should convince them that it's the road to disaster. If not, they
deserve all they get. You know, I tried to convince Dennis Ritchie to
rewrite Unix in C++.

Interviewer: Oh my God. What did he say?
Stroustrup: Well, luckily, he has a good sense of humor. I think both he
and Brian figured out what I was doing, in the early days, but never let
on. He said he'd help me write a C++ version of DOS, if I was interested.

Interviewer: Were you?
Stroustrup: Actually, I did write DOS in C++, I'll give you a demo when
we're through. I have it running on a Sparc 20 in the computer room. Goes
like a rocket on 4 CPU's, and only takes up 70 megs of disk.

Interviewer: What's it like on a PC?
Stroustrup: Now you're kidding. Haven't you ever seen Windows '95? I
think of that as my biggest success. Nearly blew the game before I was
ready, though.

Interviewer: You know, that idea of a Unix++ has really got me
thinking. Somewhere out there, there's a guy going to try it.
Stroustrup: Not after they read this interview.

Interviewer: I'm sorry, but I don't see us being able to publish
any of this.
Stroustrup: But it's the story of the century. I only want to be
remembered by my fellow programmers, for what I've done for them. You
know how much a C++ guy can get these days?

Interviewer: Last I heard, a really top guy is worth $70 - $80 an hour.
Stroustrup: See? And I bet he earns it. Keeping track of all the gotchas
I put into C++ is no easy job. And, as I said before, every C++ programmer
feels bound by some mystic promise to use every damn element of the
language on every project. Actually, that really annoys me sometimes, even
though it serves my original purpose. I almost like the language after all
this time.

Interviewer: You mean you didn't before?
Stroustrup: Hated it. It even looks clumsy, don't you agree? But
when the book royalties started to come in... well, you get the picture.

Interviewer: Just a minute. What about references? You must admit, you
improved on 'C' pointers.
Stroustrup: Hmm. I've always wondered about that. Originally, I thought I
had. Then, one day I was discussing this with a guy who'd written C++ from
the beginning. He said he could never remember whether his variables were
referenced or dereferenced, so he always used pointers. He said the
little asterisk always reminded him.

Interviewer: Well, at this point, I usually say 'thank you very much' but
it hardly seems adequate.
Stroustrup: Promise me you'll publish this. My conscience is
getting the better of me these days.

Interviewer: I'll let you know, but I think I know what my editor will say.
Stroustrup: Who'd believe it anyway? Although, can you send me a
copy of that tape?

Interviewer: I can do that.


Do you pine for the nice days of Minix-1.1,
when men were men and wrote their own device drivers? ...Linus Torvalds

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