Real Programmers Don't Use PASCAL

My thanks to Reynir Stefánsson for emailing me the attribution for this classic piece.

Ed Post

Letter to the editor of Datamation, volume 29 number 7, pp. 263-265, July 1983

                  "Real Programmers Don't Use PASCAL"
        Back in the good old days -- the "Golden Era" of computers,  it
was easy to separate the men from the boys (sometimes called "Real Men"
and "Quiche  Eaters"  in the literature).  During this period, the Real
Men were the ones that understood computer programming, and the  Quiche
Eaters were  the  ones  that  didn't.   A real computer programmer said
things like "DO 10 I=1,10" and "ABEND" (they actually talked in capital
letters, you understand), and the rest of the world  said  things  like
"computers are too complicated for me" and "I can't relate to computers
-- they're  so  impersonal".  (A previous work [1] points out that Real
Men don't "relate" to anything, and aren't afraid of being impersonal.)

        But, as usual, times change.  We are faced today with  a  world
in which  little old ladies can get computers in their microwave ovens,
12-year-old kids can blow Real Men out of the water  playing  Asteroids
and Pac-Man,  and  anyone  can  buy  and even understand their very own
Personal Computer.  The  Real  Programmer  is  in  danger  of  becoming
extinct, of being replaced by high-school students with TRASH-80's.

        There is a clear need to point out the differences between  the
typical high-school  junior  Pac-Man  player and a Real Programmer.  If
this difference is made clear, it will give  these  kids  something  to
aspire to  -- a role model, a Father Figure.  It will also help explain
to the employers of Real Programmers why  it  would  be  a  mistake  to
replace the  Real  Programmers  on their staff with 12-year-old Pac-Man
players (at a considerable salary savings).

        The easiest way to tell a Real Programmer from the crowd is  by
the programming  language  he  (or  she)  uses.   Real  Programmers use
FORTRAN.  Quiche Eaters use PASCAL.  Nicklaus Wirth,  the  designer  of
PASCAL, gave  a  talk  once at which he was asked "How do you pronounce
your name?".  He replied, "You can either call me by name,  pronouncing
it 'Veert',  or  call  me by value, 'Worth'."  One can tell immediately
from this comment that Nicklaus Wirth is  a  Quiche  Eater.   The  only
parameter   passing  mechanism  endorsed  by   Real   Programmers    is
call-by-value-return, as implemented in the  IBM\370  FORTRAN-G  and  H
compilers.  Real  programmers don't need all these abstract concepts to
get their jobs done -- they are perfectly  happy  with  a  keypunch,  a
FORTRAN-IV compiler, and a beer.

   * Real Programmers do List Processing in FORTRAN.

   * Real Programmers do String Manipulation in FORTRAN.

   * Real Programmers do Accounting (if they do it at all) in FORTRAN.

   * Real Programmers do Artificial Intelligence programs in FORTRAN.

If you  can't  do  it  in  FORTRAN, do it in assembly language.  If you
can't do it in assembly language, it isn't worth doing.

        The academics  in  computer  science  have  gotten   into   the
"structured programming"  rut  over the past several years.  They claim
that programs are more easily understood if the  programmer  uses  some
special language  constructs  and  techniques.  They don't all agree on
exactly which constructs, of course, and the examples they use to  show
their particular  point of view invariably fit on a single page of some
obscure journal or another -- clearly  not  enough  of  an  example  to
convince anyone.   When  I  got out of school, I thought I was the best
programmer in  the  world.  I  could  write  an unbeatable  tic-tac-toe
program, use  five  different  computer languages, and create 1000-line
programs that WORKED.  (Really!)  Then I got out into the  Real  World.
My first  task  in  the  Real  World  was  to  read  and  understand  a
200,000-line FORTRAN program, then speed it up by a factor of two.  Any
Real Programmer will tell you that all the  Structured  Coding  in  the
world won't  help  you  solve  a  problem  like that -- it takes actual
talent.  Some quick observations on  Real  Programmers  and  Structured

   * Real Programmers aren't afraid to use GOTO's.

   * Real Programmers can write five-page-long DO loops without
     getting confused.

   * Real Programmers like Arithmetic IF statements -- they make the
     code more interesting.

   * Real Programmers write self-modifying code, especially if they
     can save 20 nanoseconds in the middle of a tight loop.

   * Real Programmers don't need comments -- the code is obvious.

   * Since FORTRAN doesn't have a structured IF, REPEAT ... UNTIL, or
     CASE statement, Real Programmers don't have to worry about not
     using them. Besides, they can to simulated when necessary using
     assigned GOTO's.

        Data Structures  have  also  gotten  a  lot  of  press  lately.
Abstract Data  Types,  Structures,  Pointers,  Lists,  and Strings have
become popular in certain circles.  Wirth (the  above-mentioned  Quiche
Eater) actually  wrote  an  entire  book  [2] contending that you could
write a program based on data structures,  instead  of  the  other  way
around.  As  all  Real Programmers know, the on! useful. data structure
is the Array.  Strings,  lists,  structures,  sets  --  these  are  all
special cases  of  arrays  and  can  be treated that way just as easily
without messing  up  your  programming  language  with  all  sorts   of
complications.  The worst thing about fancy data types is that you have
to declare  them,  and Real Programming Languages, as we all know, have
implicit typing based on  the  first  letter  of  the  (six  character)
variable name.

        What kind of operating system is used  by  a  Real  Programmer?
CP/M?  God  forbid  --  CP/M,  after  all, is basically a toy operating
system.  Even  little  old  ladies  and  grade  school   students   can
understand and use CP/M.

        Unix is a lot more complicated of course --  the  typical  Unix
hacker never can remember what the PRINT command is called this week --
but when  it  gets  right  down  to it, Unix is a glorified video came.
People don't do Serious Work on Unix systems:  they  send jokes  around
the world on UUCP-net and write adventure games and research papers.

        No, your Real Programmer uses 0S\370.  A  good  programmer  can
find and understand the description of the IJK305I error he just got in
his JCL manual.  A  great programmer can write JCL without referring to 
the manual at all.  A truly outstanding programmer can find hugs buried 
in a 6 megabyte core dump without using  a  hex  calculator.   (I  have 
actually seen this done.)

        OS is a truly remarkable operating system.   It's  possible  to
destroy days of work with a single misplaced space, so alertness in the
programming staff  is  encouraged.  The best way to approach the system 
is through a keypunch.  Some people  claim  there  is  a  Tire  Sharing
system that  runs on 0S\370, but after careful study I have come to the
conclusion that they were mistaken.

        What kind of tools does a Real Programmer use?   In  theory,  a
Real Programmer  could  run  his programs by keying them into the front 
panel of the computer.  Back in  the  days  when  computers  had  front
panels,  this  was  actually  done  occasionally.   Your  typical  Real
Programmer knew the entire bootstrap  loader  by  memory  in  hex,  and
toggled it  in  whenever  it got destroyed by his program.  (Back then,
memory was memory -- it didn't go away when the power went off.  Today,
memory either forgets things when you don't want it  to,  or  remembers
things long  after  they're  better  forgotten.)   Legend  has  it that
Seymore Cray, inventor of the Cray I supercomputer and most of  Control
Data's computers,  actually  toggled the first operating system for the
CDC7600 in on the front panel from memory when it was first powered on.
Seymore, needless to say, is a Real Programmer.

        One of my favorite Real Programmers was  a  systems  programmer 
for Texas Instruments.  One day he got a long distance call from a user
whose system  had  crashed in the middle of saving some important work. 
Jim was able to repair the damage over the phone, getting the  user  to
toggle in  disk  I/0  instructions at the front panel, repairing system 
tables in hex, reading register contents  back  over  the  phone.   The 
moral of  this  story:   while  a  Real  Programmer  usually includes a
keypunch and lineprinter in his toolkit, he can get along with  just  a
front panel and a telephone in emergencies.

        In some companies, text  editing  no  longer  consists  of  ten
engineers standing  in  line  to  use  an  029  keypunch.  In fact, the 
building I work  in  doesn't  contain  a  single  keypunch.   The  Real 
Programmer in  this  situation  has to do his work with a "text editor"
program.  Most systems supply several text editors to select from,  and
the Real  Programmer  must  be  careful  to  pick one that reflects his
personal style.  Many people believe that the best text editors in  the
world were  written at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center for use on their
Alto and Dorado computers [3].  Unfortunately, no Real Programmer would
ever use a computer whose operating system  is  called  SmallTalk,  and
would certainly not talk to the computer with a mouse.

        Some of  the  concepts  in  these  Xerox  editors   have   been 
incorporated into  editors  running  on more reasonably named operating
systems -- EMACS and VI being two.  The problem with these  editors  is 
that Real  Programmers  consider  "what  you see is what you get" to be
just as bad a concept in Text Editors as it is in women.  No  the  Real
Programmer wants  a  "you  asked  for  it,  you  got it" text editor --
complicated, cryptic, powerful, unforgiving, dangerous.   TECO,  to  be

        It has been observed that a TECO command sequence more  closely
resembles transmission  line  noise than readable text [4].  One of the
more entertaining games to play with TECO is to type your name in as  a
command line  and  try  to guess what it does.  Just about any possible
typing error  while  talking  with  TECO  will  probably  destroy  your 
program, or  even  worse  --  introduce subtle and mysterious bugs in a
once working subroutine.

        For this reason, Real Programmers  are  reluctant  to  actually 
edit a  program  that is close to working.  They find it much easier to 
just patch the binary object code directly, using a  wonderful  program
called SUPERZAP (or its equivalent on non-IBM machines).  This works so
well that  many working programs on IBM systems heat no relation to the
original FORTRAN code.  In many cases, the original source code  is  no
longer available.   When  it  comes  time  to  fix a program like this,
no manager would even  think  of  sending  anything  less  than  a Real
Programmer to  do  the  job  --  no Quiche Eating structured programmer
would even know where to start.  This is called "job security".

        Some programming tools NOT used by Real Programmers:

   * FORTRAN preprocessors like MORTRAN and RATFOR. The Cuisinarts of
     programming -- great for making Quiche. See comments above on
     structured programming.

   * Source language debuggers. Real Programmers can read core dumps.

   * Compilers with array bounds checking. They stifle creativity,
     destroy most of the interesting uses for EQUIVALENCE, and make it
     impossible to modify the operating system with negative
     subscripts. Worst of all, bounds checking is inefficient.

   * Source code maintenance systems. A Real Programmer keeps his code
     locked up in a card file, because it implies that its owner cannot
     leave his important programs unguarded [5].

        Where does the typical Real  Programmer  work?   What  kind  of
programs are  worthy  of the efforts of so talented an individual?  You
can be sure that no  Real  Programmer  would  be  caught  dead  writing
accounts-receivable programs  in  COBOL,  or  sorting mailing lists for
People magazine.   A  Real  Programmer  wants  tasks  of  earth-shaking
importance (literally!).

   * Real Programmers work for Los Alamos National Laboratory, writing
     atomic bomb simulations to run on Cray I supercomputers. 

   * Real Programmers work for the National Security Agency, decoding
     Russian transmissions.

   * It was largely due to the efforts of thousands of Real
     Programmers working for NASA that our boys got to the moon and
     back before the Russkies.

   * Real Programmers are at work for Boeing designing the operating
     systems for cruise missiles.

        Some of the most awesome Real Programmers of all  work  at  the 
Jet Propulsion  Laboratory in California.  Many of them know the entire
operating system of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft by heart.   With
a   combination  of  large  ground-based  FORTRAN  programs  and  small
spacecraft-based assembly  language  programs,  they  are  able  to  do
incredible   feats  of  navigation  and   improvisation   --    hitting
ten-kilometer wide  windows  at  Saturn  after  six  years  in   space,
Repairing or bypassing damaged sensor platforms, radios, and batteries.
Allegedly, one  Real  Programmer  managed  to  tuck  a pattern-matching
program into a  few  hundred  bytes  of  unused  memory  in  a  Voyager 
spacecraft that  searched  for, located, and photographed a new moon of

        The current plan for the Galileo spacecraft is to use a gravity
assist trajectory past Mars on the way  to  Jupiter.   This  trajectory 
passes within  80  +/-3  kilometers  of the surface of Mars.  Nobody is
goinq to trust a PASCAL program (or a PASCAL programmer) for navigation
to these tolerances.

        As you can tell, many of the world's Real Programmers work  for
the U.S.   Government  -- mainly the Defense Department.  This is as it
should be.  Recently, however, a black cloud has  formed  on  the  Real
Programmer horizon.   It seems that some highly placed Quiche Eaters at
the Defense Department decided that  all  Defense  programs  should  be
written in  some grand unified language called "ADA" ((C), DoD).  For a
while, it seemed that ADA was destined to become a language  that  went
against all  the  precepts  of  Real  Programming  --  a  language with
structure, a language with data types, strong typing,  and  semicolons.
In short,  a language designed to cripple the creativity of the typical
Real Programmer.  Fortunately, the language adopted by DoD  has  enough
interesting  features  to  make  it  approachable  --  it's  incredibly
complex, includes methods for messing with  the  operating  system  and
rearranging   memory,  and  Edsgar  Dijkstra  doesn't  like   it   [6].
(Dijkstra, as I'm sure you know, was the author  of  "GoTos  Considered
Harmful" --  a  landmark  work in programming methodology, applauded by
PASCAL programmers and Quiche Eaters alike.)  Besides,  the  determined
Real Programmer can write FORTRAN programs in any language.

        The Real Programmer might compromise his principles and work on
something slightly more trivial than the destruction of life as we know
it, providing there's enough money  in  it.   There  are  several  Real
Programmers building  video  games  at  Atari,  for  example.  (But not
playing them -- a Real Programmer knows how to beat the  machine  every
time:  no  challenge in that.)  Everyone working at LucasFilm is a Real
Programmer.  (It would be crazy to turn down the money of fifty million
Star Trek fans.)   The  proportion  of  Real  Programmers  in  Computer
Graphics is somewhat  lower  than  the norm, mostly  because nobody has
found a use for computer graphics yet.  On the other hand, all computer
graphics is done in FORTRAN, so there are a fair number of people doing
graphics in order to avoid having to write COBOL programs.

        Generally, the Real Programmer plays the same way he  works  --
with computers.   He  is  constantly  amazed that his employer actually 
pays him to do what he would be doing for fun anyway  (although  he  is
careful not  to express this opinion out loud).  Occasionally, the Real
Programmer does step out of the office for a breath of fresh air and  a
beer or  two.   Some tips on recognizing Real Programmers away from the
computer room:

   * At a party, the Real Programmers are the ones in the corner
     talking about operating system security and how to get around it.

   * At a football game, the Real Programmer is the one comparing the
     plays against his simulations printed on 11 by 14 fanfold paper.

   * At the beach, the Real Programmer is the one drawing flowcharts
     in the sand.

   * At a funeral, the Real Programmer is the one saying "Poor George.
     And he almost had the sort routine working before the coronary."

   * In a grocery store, the Real Programmer is the one who insists on
     running the cans past the laser checkout scanner himself, because
     he never could trust keypunch operators to get it right the first

        What sort of environment does the Real Programmer function best
in?  This  is  an  important  question  for  the   managers   of   Real
Programmers.  Considering  the  amount of money it costs to keep one on
the staff, it's best to put him (or her) in an environment where he can
get his work done.

        The typical Real  Programmer  lives  in  front  of  a  computer
terminal.  Surrounding this terminal are:

   * Listings of all programs the Real Programmer has ever worked on,
     piled in roughly chronological order on every flat surface in the

   * Some half-dozen or so partly filled cups of cold coffee.
     Occasionally, there will be cigarette butts floating in the
     coffee. In some cases, the cups will contain Orange Crush.

   * Unless he is very good, there will be copies of the OS JCL manual
     and the Principles of Operation open to some particularly
     interesting pages.

   * Taped to the wall is a line-printer Snoopy calendar for the year

   * Strewn about the floor are several wrappers for peanut butter
     filled cheese bars -- the type that are made pre-stale at the
     bakery so they can't get any worse while waiting in the vending

   * Hiding in the top left-hand drawer of the desk is a stash of
     double-stuff Oreos for special occasions.

   * Underneath the Oreos is a flowcharting template, left there by
     the previous occupant of the office. (Real Programmers write
     programs, not documentation. Leave that to the maintenance

        The Real Programmer is capable of working 30, 40, even 50 hours
at a stretch, under intense pressure.  In fact, he prefers it that way.
Bad response time doesn't bother the Real Programmer -- it gives him  a
chance to catch  a  little  sleep  between  compiles.   If there is not
enough schedule pressure on the  Real  Programmer,  he  tends  to  make
things more  challenging  by working on some small but interesting part
of the problem for the first nine weeks, then finishing the rest in the
last week, in two or three 50-hour marathons.  This not only  impresses
the hell  out  of  his  manager, who was despairing of ever getting the
project done on time, but creates a convenient excuse for not doing the
documentation.  In general:

   * No Real Programmer works 9 to 5 (unless it's the ones at night).

   * Real Programmers don't wear neckties.

   * Real Programmers don't wear high-heeled shoes.

   * Real Programmers arrive at work in time for lunch [9].

   * A Real Programmer might or might not know his wife's name. He
     does, however, know he entire ASCII (or EBCDIC) code table.

   * Real Programmers don't know how to cook. Grocery stores aren't
     open at three in the morning. Real Programmers survive on
     Twinkles and coffee.

        What of the future?  It is a matter of  some  concern  to  Real
Programmers that  the latest generation of computer programmers are not
being brought up with the same outlook on life as their  elders.   Many
of them  have  never seen a computer with a front panel.  Hardly anyone
graduating from school these days  can  do  hex  arithmetic  without  a
calculator.  College  graduates  these  days are soft -- protected from
the realities of programming by source level  debuggers,  text  editors
that count  parentheses,  and "user friendly" operating systems.  Worst
of all, some of those  alleged  "computer  scientists"  manage  to  get
degrees without  ever  learning  FORTRAN!  Are we destined to become an
industry of Unix hackers and PASCAL programmers?

        From my experience, I can only report that the future is bright
for Real Programmers everywhere.  Neither OS\370 nor FORTRAN  show  any
signs of  dying  out, despite all the efforts of PASCAL programmers the
world over.  Even more subtle tricks,  like  adding  structured  coding
constructs to FORTRAN have failed.  Oh sure, some computer vendors have
come out  with FORTRAN 77 compilers, but every one of them has a way of
converting itself back into a FORTRAN 66 compiler at  the  drop  of  an
option card -- to compile DO loops like God meant them to be.

        Even Unix might not be as bad on Real Programmers  as  it  once
was.  The  latest  release  of  Unix  has the potential of an operating
system worthy of any  Real  Programmer  --  two  different  and  subtly
incompatible  user  interfaces,  an  arcane  and  complicated  teletype
driver, virtual memory.  If you ignore the fact that it's "structured",
even 'C' programming can be appreciated hey the Real Programmer:  after
all, there's  no type checking, variable names are seven, (ten- eight-)
characters long, and the added bonus of the Pointer data type is thrown
in -- like having the best parts of FORTRAN and  assembly  language  in
one place.   (Not  to  mention  some  of  the  more  creative  uses for

        No, the future isn't all that bad. Why,  in the last few years,
the popular press has even commented or the bright new crop of computer
nerds and hackers ([7] and [8]) leaving places like Stanford and M.I.T.
for the Real World.  From all evidence, the spirit of Real  Programming
lives on  in  these  young  men  and  women.   As  long  as  there  are
ill-defined goals, bizarre bugs, and unrealistic schedules, there  will
be Real  Programmers  willing  to jump in and Solve The Problem, saving
the documentation for later.  Long live FORTRAN!

        I would like to thank Jan E., Dave S., Rich G.,  Rich E.,  for
their help  in characterizing the Real Programmer, Heather B.  for the
illustration, Kathy E. for putting up with it, and atd!avsdS:mark  for
the initial inspiration.

    [1]  Feirstein, B., "Real Men  don't  Eat  Quiche",  New
         York, Pocket Books, 1982.

    [2]  Wirth,  N.,  "Algorithms  +   Data Structures   =
         Programs", Prentice Hall, 1976.

    [3]  Ilson, R., "Recent Research  in  Text  Processing",
         IEEE  Trans.   Prof.  Commun., Vol.  PC-23, No.  4,
         Dec. 4, 1980.

    [4]  Finseth, C., "Theory and Practice of  Text  Editors
         -- or -- a Cookbook for  an  EMACS",  B.S.  Thesis,
         MIT/LCS/TM-165,    Massachusetts    Institute    of
         Technology, May 1980.

    [5]  Weinberg,   G.,   "The   Psychology   of   Computer
         Programming",  New  York,  Van  Nostrand  Reinhold,
         1971, p.  110.

    [6]  Dijkstra, E., "On the GREEN language  submitted  to
         the  DoD",  Sigplan  notices,  Vol. 3  No.  10, Oct

    [7]  Rose, Frank, "Joy of Hacking", Science 82, Vol.   3
         No.  9, Nov 82, pp.  58-66.

    [8]  "The Hacker Papers", Psychology Today, August 1980.

    [9]  sdcarl!lin, "Real Programmers", UUCP-net,  Thu  Oct
         21 16:55:16 1982