Peculiar Books Reviewed: Francis Spufford's "Backroom Boys"

Originally published August 31, 2014

What is the soul of software engineering as a discipline? That is, who is it that the software engineer can esteem? What characteristics are laudable and worthy of emulation?

Physicists have their heroes: Niels Bohr, say, careful to the point of being paralyzed by indecision but brilliant nonetheless, or Richard Feynman, a person, by his own account, in love with the possibility of understanding, in a strictly physical sense, the Universe. Mathematicians can look to Ramanujan or Euler or Erdos. What of software engineers? Two individuals come to my mind. Foremost is Admiral Grace Hopper, inventor of the compiler, promoter of standardization and, least of all, originator of the maxim "It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission." Another is Donald Knuth, a computer scientist and engineer both, if you'll grant the distinction, who has over decades made smooth pearls of the fundamentals of the field, inventing a good chunk of it besides. From Admiral Hopper I, at least, take wit, savvy in bureaucratic environs and clever, clear explanations of complex topics. From Professor Knuth, I take patience and diligence. Of course, these are just a handful of traits from a few people. There's more to each of them and more than each of them, besides. These estimable characteristics are highly specific to myself, as well, and say less about the soul of the discipline than they do about my own soul. Perhaps you value Woz' legendary ability to do more with less over Professor Knuth's patience, for example.

It's on this difficultly that Francis Spufford's Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin ultimately runs aground. Spufford's ambition, according to his preface, is to tell the story of the backroom boys, "what industrial-age Britain used to call the ingenious engineers who occupied the draughty buildings at the edge of factory grounds and invented the technologies of the future" and "what happened to the backroom boys as the world of aircraft factories and steel mills faded." Spufford attempts to tell the story of the "adaptation" of the engineers beginning with the sputtering out of the British Black Arrow rocketry program shortly before achieving its sole successful flight, through the French/British Concorde, to David Braben and Ian Bell's Elite (a video game), the expansion of the Vodafone cellular network, through the Human Genome Project out and through the British built, ESA launched Beagle Mars probe. Through it all, Spufford claims an essential engineer-ness to the people profiled, describing a group of engineers--which included the author Arthur C. Clarke--who cheered--yes, they got up and cheered--a German V2 strike against London as it vindicated their theories that rocketry was, in fact, practically possible by saying that "(t)hey had the tunnel vision of the engineer, with its exclusive focus on what is technically possible." Elsewhere, a radio propagation specialist is described in similarly broad terms: "modification to his house that declares to his neighbors ... that an engineer resides within, is a custom TV aerial, self-built ... Like other engineers, he prefers to have things just so, intellectually as well as technologically." Braben and Bell are portrayed as a bit otherworldly, eager to explain that Elite could have supported 2 to the 48' power number of galaxies, not because it would make the game better--"Acornsoft could see that having 282,000,000,000,000 galaxies would rub the player's nose in the artificiality of what they were enjoying"--but because it was possible to do. Even more shaky, is the distinction Spufford draws between scientists and engineers: "He was a scientist, not an engineer, so he put knowing above making as the highest, the most central of motivations."

Nonsense. Although he set out to examine the changing circumstances of the British boffin through the post-war decline, Thatcher-era austerity and up through the Information Economy boom of the 1990s, Spufford has really only succeeded in this regard in shoehorning complex people into a broad stereotype, furthering the mythology of the Engineer as different and better from you and me. Why Spufford has done this is clear: without an Archetype to track through time, there'd be no "adaptation" to discuss. I alluded to it a bit above, but this is how the book turns out: it's really just about people that happen to build things or, tellingly, about the business people who employ them. The Concorde, Human Genome Project and Cellular Network chapters are each more strongly focused on the business opportunity posed by a certain technical challenge than the engineers that went about creating a solution for the challenge.

It's an awful shame, really, because while the core of the book is dodgy it's really quite a good read. Each chapter is self-contained and carries along well, even when the underlying technical problem isn't terrifically stimulating. Spufford interviewed a huge number of people for the book, evident in the stories that were banal to those involved, but outlandish to outsiders. Typically:

Dribbles of (high-test peroxide, a rocket fuel) left behind after a test in the twists of a pipe assembly would drain onto the sleeve of a person taking it apart: 'Instantly the whole sleeve catches fire, pooff, as quickly as that. So everybody worked in twos, with one of them holding a running hose, and you just flicked the hose onto your mate when he was on fire and he'd go, "Oh, that was a nuisance."'


At one point, with the Soviet Union falling, it even looked as if they might be able to get Russian spy sat picture to use (for mapping Britain for cellular coverage purposes). ... Causebrook vividly remembers what arrived when he asked the Russian for a sample of their photograph workmanship. 'They sent the Pentagon! A very good image of the Pentagon where you could see the cars in the carpark...'

Throughout, however, are scattered small pearls of hard won wisdom:

If you don't know what to do, do something, and measure it.

Spufford falls into the trap of discussing Engineering through the tiny lens of a handful of the personal stories of engineers, leaving aside the difficulties of doing such work without, as Spufford puts it, resorting to "selective amorality." Even while Spufford chides individual engineers for building things just to build them, with no consideration of the consequences, he is unable to elaborate how the field might be differently exercised. The lens is too focused and, in the end, they're just people. People, sure, with a certain career and probably similar backgrounds, but people just the same. Was Admiral Grace Hopper a better archetypical software engineer than Professor Knuth is now? It's a nonsense question but this is the question that, to its detriment, lies at the center of Backroom Boys. Spufford's chiding of "technologists" for their selective amorality is ironic as he commits a similar error, considering complex individuals only in terms of their service to the narrative flow of the book.

What then is the soul of software engineering, the question posed so long ago at the start of this essay? Why, it is the soul of engineering in general, which is the creation of something out of "obdurate matter" partially for its own sake and partially to meet some need. This is a very Human impulse and therein lies the failure of this whole distinction: at no point is the engineer, fundamentally different from other people. Rather, the engineer is merely specialized in domain of interest and, perhaps, more specially educated. No more, no less. How does a practicing engineer address the problem of "selective amorality" in the pursuit of Engineering? How do we avoid cheering our own V2 strikes? That's another book and another review, I'm afraid.