Thursday, November 3, 2011

“Dennis Ritchie: The shoulders Steve Jobs stood on”

After Steve Jobs’ death in October 2011, the waves of tributes celebrating Steve Jobs’ life and achievements swept through the shores of the web for days and days. In fact, the waves didn’t come to the shore. It was ocean that came ashore. And it was all but natural. Steve had a profound impact on our digital lives that very few other individuals did. He changed the way we live and work.

While browsing through many tributes and reminiscing a genius, I came across an article on CNN titled, “Dennis Ritchie: The shouldersSteve Jobs stood on.” My first impression was that Dennis Ritchie paid tributes to Steve Jobs in an article on CNN. Somehow the name Dennis Ritchie sounded familiar, but I couldn’t associate his name. My curiosity got better of me and I clicked on the article. I saw a photo on the CNN article. It showed two gentlemen in the data center surrounded by an old keyboard style terminal and rim of computer tapes. I didn’t recognize the individuals on the photo. I had never seen them before, but the caption mentioned Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson. I began to glance at the few more lines and saw words such as Bell Labs, C programming language and UNIX operating system.

I immediately realized who Dennis Ritchie was. I immediately recognized Ken Thompson. Dennis Ritchie was the father of the C programming language. Ken Thomson, a fellow researcher at Bell Labs, used C to build UNIX operating system.

And the article I was reading was a eulogy to Dennis Ritchie who had passed away in the same month as Steve Jobs.

My memories of Dennis Ritchie go back to my college days when I was learning computer programming. I already had a good grasp on Assembly, Basic, FORTRAN and Pascal languages. The next frontier for me was to get a good handle on C programming language. C was the language every computer programmer wanted to learn and master. There were plenty of job openings for C programmers. No wonder I also wanted to master C.

Unfortunately, C programming language course wasn’t offered at my school. My only option was to learn C language myself. My professor allowed me to borrow a book by Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan called C Programming Language. The book was a classic. I was hooked onto it. I read this book word-by-word, page-by-page and chapter-by-chapter. I didn’t skip a single line. I learned C programming, and more importantly the computer programming, through this book. This book is a true classic. Concise but the definitive resource on C. When I came to USA to pursue Masters in Computer Science, the first book that I bought at Barnes and Noble in New York was this book. I wanted this book as a reference since I didn’t get time to buy this book in India before I flew to the USA.

My first job in the USA was as C programmer. It was my fluency in C that landed me my first job during a difficult job market in the USA. I had learned C so well just by reading the book that Dennis Ritchie wrote. It was my fluency in C language that accorded me better job options and work later in my career.

Dennis Ritchie’s legacy goes far beyond. In a eulogy, Rob Pike, a researcher at Bell Labs, writes, "Pretty much everything on the web uses those two things: C and UNIX. The browsers are written in C. The UNIX kernel — that pretty much the entire Internet runs on -- is written in C. Web servers are written in C, and if they're not, they're written in Java or C++, which are C derivatives or Python or Ruby, which are implemented in C. And all of the network hardware running these programs I can almost guarantee were written in C. It's really hard to overstate how much of the modern information economy is built on the work Dennis did. Jobs was the king of the visible, and Ritchie is the king of what is largely invisible.”
Computing world is indebted to Dennis Ritchie. May his legacy live forever!

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