An Interview with Bruce Eckel
Recently, Jason Bell had the opportunity
to talk with Bruce Eckel, noted author of
Thinking in Java and Thinking in C++.
JDJ: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I know you've recently had some seminars in Prague. Do you think European programmers differ from American programmers?
Bruce Eckel: That's very difficult to say,
since I believe we tend to get a special
group of programmers at the seminars
there. Even though we offer the seminar
at lower prices, it's still expensive
and as a result those who do come
seem to be the exceptional ones. They
tend to be outstanding, but I assume
there are other factors involved.
JDJ: Do you have any comments on the new additions to the JDK 1.5?
Eckel: I assume you mean the features
that mimic those in C#. I'm very glad to
see those, because it means that the
Sun Java folks are no longer saying "you
don't really want those things." Instead,
they're stepping up to the competition
right away, which is very promising. I
was very skeptical about C# at first, but
when I examined it more closely I realized
it was a well-designed language.
JDJ: I know you use a number of languages, but which one would you suggest for beginners who want to learn object orientation?
Eckel: Python. It's the perfect beginner
language, and it's built on objects from
the ground up, so it's easy to learn to
use objects with the language. Unlike
Java or C++, there's very little ceremony
required, so you don't get distracted by
weird artifacts and can focus on the
essence of objects and programming.
Then if you want to move to Java or
C++, the concepts translate nicely and
you can easily see what the object's
essence is in that language and which
are the language artifacts. And you can
continue using Jython in various ways
for your Java development. Also, there's
Boost.Python to make it easy to talk
back and forth between Python and C++
JDJ: I've spoken to a lot of programmers over the years and I've heard nothing but praise for Thinking in Java. Are you surprised by its success?
Eckel: I guess I am. I've been writing
books so long that I don't expect them
to necessarily do that well (first-time
authors often expect to retire on book
royalties, but after you've done it awhile
you discover that a "successful" book in
the publisher's eyes is often just one
that pays back its advance). But since
Thinking in C++ (when I started using
automated code testing tools to validate
the code in the book, in 1995) I
also expected that everybody would
naturally start using automated testing
tools for their book code. At this point,
I've still met only a couple of authors
who do it. Also, I follow John Irving's
maxim: "Writing is rewriting." But that's
pretty much all I do - make sure my
code works and rewrite a lot. As a result
of rewriting, I find a lot of things in the
books that I consider embarrassing, so
I always think they could be a lot better.
JDJ: Do you offer the code updates on your Web site?
Eckel: Yes. The code and the HTML version
of the book is available for free
download from www.MindView.net.
There aren't a lot of changes between
versions of the book, but if I do make
any changes I post them on the site.
JDJ: I notice you have a Web log. What made you decide to run one? Do you get time to read any other programming blogs?
Eckel: If you go to the first Web log at
titled "The origin of this Web log," that
will answer your first question. Bill
Venners got me started, and even though
I didn't end up writing on his site, I still
follow his logs a bit. He's amassed quite a
collection of quality Web loggers, and he
focuses on programming.
For years I've read Elliotte Rusty
Harold's "Cafe Au Lait" Web site
(www.cafeaulait.org), which is kind of
like a Web log for Elliotte but better -
it's daily and he hunts for interesting
articles, so it's as if he's filtering the Web
for me, especially Java stuff. I rely pretty
heavily on the Elliotte-bot to keep track
of the interesting stuff. I occasionally
read some columnists, like Cringely
(www.pbs.org/cringely) and Joel
and www.pcmag.com columnists. But
these are when I'm killing time. Usually
when I'm at the computer I try to get
JDJ: In one of your blog entries it said "If it's not tested, it's broken." Do you have any words that would encourage nontesting programmers to test their code?
Eckel: That's actually a quote from
Thinking in Java, 3rd edition. There's a
section in Chapter 15, "Discovering
Problems," that attempts to convince
people of the value of testing. Also, the
talk I give to user groups lately is about
testing (unit testing and design by contract,
also in TIJ3). But in general it
seems to be a personal epiphany that
each programmer must have, when they
suddenly see that automated unit testing
saves them a lot more time than it
costs. This happens when you change
something in your code and your unit
tests suddenly find a lot of bugs that you
know wouldn't have shown up for a long
time otherwise. That's convincing - after
that, you can't imagine doing without.
JDJ: Are there any books you can recommend (apart from your own) that have been a help to you?
Eckel: Design Patterns, of course; despite
its problems it's still a major learning
experience. Gerald Weinberg's Secrets
of Consulting is a must, as is
Peopleware by DeMarco and Lister
(2nd edition, and they just came out
with a new book, Waltzing with Bears,
that I'm sure is good). Effective C++
and Effective Java have both been quite
helpful. I finally understood network
programming from Elliotte Rusty
Harold's Java Network Programming.
Learning Python, The Python Standard
Library, and The Python Cookbook are
all great. Core Java has always been
helpful as a resource. Some of the
Extreme Programming books have
been good. I generally like Robert
Glass's books for their irreverence
about software development. A lot of
Martin Fowler's writing is quite helpful.
That's all that I can get from skimming
over my bookcase.
JDJ: With everything you do, do you have time for any non-work activities?
Eckel: Definitely. That's one of the main
points of working for myself - the
freedom to take time off and do other
things. One of the activities I enjoy a
lot when I'm here in Crested Butte,
Colorado, is mountain biking. I'm
competent in that I can cover the territory
(sometimes that means walking
the bike) but it's excellent exercise
and a great way to be outside. Also
hiking, since the mountains are beautiful
here. I usually take people on
hikes when they come up here for
Also, on a lark I just tried out for a
local play here, however, I don't know if
I got the part, but it turns out it was a
lot of fun just to read for it.
JDJ: What do you have planned for the remainder of 2003?
Eckel: We aren't doing that many public
seminars since people haven't been
that keen to travel, and the economy
has definitely impacted training budgets
(although I have seen some small
indications that this trend has at least
bottomed out, if not slightly turned
around). I suspect we'll have at least
several in Crested Butte before the end
of the year, but the rest of the time I
will be working on books (finishing
C++, Volume 2, starting a new book
that I haven't announced yet) and the
"Hands-On Java CD ROM," finishing
the solution guide for the
third edition. I also hope to
set up a simple studio to
create video training media,
which is something I've
been pursuing on and off
since I worked on The World
of C++ and Beyond the World
of C++ many years ago for
Borland (see http://mindview.net/WebLog/log-0029 for
details). Especially with people
not traveling and with
budgets the way they are, it
seems as if CDs and videos
are a great way for people to learn now.
Also, I've been doing
audio interviews with various
luminaries in the software
world that I plan to make
into an MP3 CD for people to
listen to while they drive
(with the new inexpensive
MP3 players) or on their
computers. These interviews
have been quite interesting
so far; I'm going for the NPR
"Fresh Air" kind of feel.
They've also been fun to do,
which I think is a good sign.
JDJ: Dare I ask which luminaries you have interviewed? Just as a teaser...
Eckel: I'm going for a spectrum of people
involved in different aspects of creating
software. Not everyone is well
known. Some are book authors like
Dave Thomas, Andy Hunt, Joshua
Bloch, and Ron Jeffries. Chuck Allison
wrote a C/C++ book and is coauthoring
Thinking in C++, Volume 2 with me,
but his focus is teaching so we talked
about the education necessary for
good software engineers. Guido Van
Rossum created the Python language
and Jim Fulton created the Zope application
server. Gene Wang used to be VP
of languages at Borland, and is now
president of a company that makes
cellphone software, so we mostly
talked about management. Daniel Will-
Harris is a designer (he does my book
covers) and has consulted on the user
aspects of software; we discussed, from
the user's perspective, the kinds of
things that software designers need to
do in order to create better software.
There are others that I hope to add,
and I also hope to continue doing
interviews and creating CDs like this
because I'm having fun doing it. And
the questions I asked were things that I
found interesting, so I think the interviews
themselves will be quite enjoyable to listen to.
JDJ: You mentioned MP3s; do you listen to any music while you're coding?
Eckel: No, I'm not the kind of person who
can usually listen to music and do complicated
mental stuff at the same time. I
had a college roommate who could only
study with headphones and music, and
I could never figure it out. On the contrary,
I prefer things as silent as possible,
and my father (a master craftsman
in wood) just finished building me a
desk for use here in Crested Butte that
has a sound-insulated cabinet for the
CPU box. Since my new computer is
very quiet, the combination of the two
should be completely silent.
I am interested in some of the new
MP3 technologies, however. In particular,
stand-alone systems that hook into
your stereo. Maybe if I master a system
like that, I'll experiment with listening
to music while writing and see what happens.
JDJ: Bruce, once ag ain, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
Eckel: Well, I think it has helped kick start
me back into my own writing. This was
the easiest project (talking about myself) that I had on my desk.
Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall), the Hands-On Java SeminarCD ROM (available on his Web site), and Thinking in C++(PH), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee, and speaks regularly at conferences. He provides public and private seminars and design consulting in C++ and Java.