On 16 December 2014, Editor in Chief Andrew Binstock announced that after 38 years publisher UBM was “sunsetting Dr. Dobb’s”. I owe my career in IT in large part to “Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia: Running Light without Overbyte”. I started reading “DDJ” in 1987, when none of my friends in university even thought about owning a personal computer. I followed along with Bill and Lynne Jolitz’s “roll your own operating system” article series as they developed 386BSD (a port to the 80386 platform of BSD, from which FreeBSD and NetBSD later forked). I recall the excitement of discovering new inventions such as CORBA, Linux, HTTP, the WWW, and getting to understand exactly how they worked. I admired the code written by contributing authors and columnists. DDJ was written and read by hackers with a shared passion for programming, for making things, for harnessing the technology that would revolutionise the world.
Anyway, a year ago Dr. Dobb’s Journal had to go, to “sail away into the sunset” as Andrew Binstock put it. I responded with the letter that follows. I intended it to be a public letter, but the DDJ site didn’t allow for comments, so I let it be. The one-year anniversary of DDJ’s demise is a good occasion to put it up after all.
When I read your sad announcement of Dr. Dobb’s “sunsetting” (what an awful euphemism), one of my kids was just wearing the DDJ hat that Jon Erickson sent me in 2009, in return for my Oct ‘90 issue that another reader was missing in her collection. Later you and I had an email exchange when I was going to ship 16 years (minus that one issue) of Dr. Dobb’s to your office, just before me and my family were going to move from The Netherlands to Tanzania. Looking back it may have been a good thing that the boxes were too heavy to send, and by pure chance ended up with a truly old-time IT hack who supports a small private IT museum and who was missing the issue with the first 386BSD instalment.
My, it IS sad to hear that Dr. Dobb’s is stopping. You may have heard this from others too, but for me DDJ certainly changed my mindset, my career, and I would say even my life.
After 20 years of working in IT in Europe (which I wouldn’t have been working in in the first place, having majored in Human Geography rather than Computer Science), now I’m the proverbial “IT guy” at an African clinical research institute, supporting research teams looking for cures for malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. I wouldn’t have been here, doing this work, if it weren’t for Dr. Dobb’s.
If my IT career hadn’t been kick started by reading Dr. Dobb’s Journal (ooh that expectant feeling, the excitement when I used to cycle to the train station, hoping that next month’s issue would have arrived at the only kiosk in my university town that had it, then reading it cover to cover in the train back home to my parents - the perfect feel-good-experience!), anyway if I hadn’t read Dr. Dobb’s in those days, I’m sure I’d still be the enterprise architect doing consultancy gigs at big European corporations. Nothing wrong with that! But instead I’m now cobbling together a monitoring system for our lab from a Raspberry Pi, some digital thermometers, and a bunch of other odds and ends which I ask friends to order and send to me - for a fraction of the completely unaffordable $20,000 for a COTS system. Yes, “running light without overbyte”!
University may have taught me the programming languages, but it was Dr. Dobb’s (and the geeky humanism of authors such as Mike Swain, and the lucidity and technical acuity of people like the two Als, as well as many others - hey let’s not forget the wit of Verity Stob!) which brought the fascination and inspiration without which IT would have been just another job. DDJ brought me a lifelong passion for programming, for tinkering, for making technology. It made me see that anything I can think of, I can build. It only requires dedication, patience and a clear mind.
And, of course: time. That was such an abundant resource in the DDJ days! I’m sure it never changed its flow, and indeed nothing flows our way faster or more reliably, so why does everyone behave as if time has become very scarce nowadays? In the DDJ days we used it as the essential substrate on which to grow good design and beautiful code. Now it’s the opposite: time is seen as the poison of which one must take as little as possible. I think that’s a huge misconception.
For me, DDJ put the heart and soul in IT, the engine which keeps me going in what I do for a living and a life. Poor old Dr. Dobb’s. Even if it’s been a while since I last saw you, it’s oh so hard to have to see you go. You’re in good company, I see: from your little sailing boat I see the kindred spirits of that first generation of home programmers waving back, leaving us with a world that is a little colder and less colourful tomorrow.
Kind regards, Marco