I was at San Jose Airport when I saw on my phone the news that Dennis Ritchie passed away. Honestly – unlike the news of Steve Jobs’ death, this did not exactly shock me. But I truly felt sad at some level, and my mind raced back to my school days and to the hand-me-down tatered covers of K&R – the definitive book on C programming.
The first programming language I learnt was BASIC on a hand-me-down PC, with storage on a cassette. I used to feel incredibly proud being able to write video games in BASIC. A year later, an uncle of mine visited us, and he was going to USA for higher studies. He gave me the K&R book – and told me “stop building stupid games, and learn this”. If I remember right, that book was not opened for another couple of years.
And then a friend introduced me to a scientist in the space research center, who was a programming expert. He offered to teach me C. And I told him I have the K&R book. His answer was “Don’t insult Dennis Ritchie, kiddo – you are not ready for K&R”. And he was right – I was not. I went back and read the first chapter – and “hello world” made sense to me. But by the time it came to pointers – it was beyond me, and I felt terrible. But my teacher patiently walked me through each chapter, and in a few months – I was getting good at C. And finally – the book started making sense. That tattered book is still in my parent’s home, and I fondly browse through it every time I visit. Along the way, I also learned UNIX. And I did not know then that Dennis Ritchie was one of the guys who invented it,
C++, ABAP and Java followed – and us young programmers used to ridicule them all, and the statement that ended all arguments was “that is not how it should be done according to K&R” . The big deal about ABAP was Field symbols and bit wise operators when I started in it. No trouble – it was nothing for peeps with a strong C background.
The guy who taught me C was appalled that I became an ABAP programmer. He used to yell at me – on phone, and on email that “That is not real programming – Ritchie will curse you boy”. And we used to laugh about it. I sent him a short note from my phone when I heard the news. And just as I expected – he was devastated.I had to make one other call – to my parents, to send me the K&R by Fedex.
I don’t program any more as a job, and I miss it. But programming was what helped me the most in building a career. It still is the one thing that gives me the most thrill – and I owe it directly or indirectly to K&R, and to Ritchie.
And I am sure I am not the only one feeling this way. Almost every programmer owes it to Ritchie – C is behind almost every language that came after it, right up to the stuff we need to make iPhone and iPad apps work. I know for sure – since that is what I am doing now, learning Objective C. Goes without saying that so is Unix – I cannot count how many derivatives came out of it. Even my favorite IBM Watson machine, is a Linux machine (and so is HANA)
Rest In Peace, Dennis Ritchie – and Thank You, from me and fellow programmers !