The history of software engineers includes many names that are famous, or that should be. Making a short list of the most famous involves difficult choices, but without the five people listed here, the history of software would have been very different.
Admiral Grace Hopper played a major role in the creation of software engineering. She joined the team developing the Mark I computer in 1944. In 1949, she joined Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation as a senior mathematician, and she was part of the team that developed the UNIVAC I, the first successful commercial computer.
She promoted the idea of high-level programming languages. In the early days of computers, programmers worked at the level of machine instructions, a tedious process. She led the development of the COBOL compiler in 1952. With COBOL, it was possible for the first time to create software without having to specify it one instruction at a time. She had a remarkable ability to get people to think about problems in new ways and not be limited to what they had always done.
The least famous name in this list is Gary Kildall, but without him, today’s operating systems wouldn’t be the same. In 1972, working for Intel, he developed PL/M, the first high-level programming language designed for microprocessors. This led to his development of the first BIOS for microcomputers, which grew into the first real microcomputer operating system, CP/M. For several years CP/M was the dominant operating system for Intel-based 8-bit microcomputers.
Many of the ideas from CP/M found their way into QDOS, an operating system for 16-bit processors. QDOS was the ancestor of MS-DOS, which eventually grew into Windows. MS-DOS beat CP/M-86 in the market more because of Bill Gates’ superior business skills than for any technical reason.
Several software engineers at Bell Labs deserve credit for advancing the state of software, and Dennis Ritchie is the most prominent of the group. He designed the C language, whose fingerprints show up in virtually every programming language in use today. For years the book The C Programming Language, by Kernighan and Ritchie, was a standard in every programmer’s library. It was generally known simply as “K & R.”
Along with Ken Thompson, he developed the Unix operating system. Unix and its derivatives power virtually every computer that doesn’t run Windows.
Richard M. Stallman
Best known as a free software activist, Richard M. Stallman (often known as RMS) has an impressive history of developing the software which he promotes under GNU licenses. He launched the GNU Project in 1983 to create a free equivalent to Unix. GNU stands recursively for “GNU’s Not Unix.” Stallman also developed the GNU Emacs editor and the GNU Compiler Collection. The collection supports C, C++, Objective-C, and several other languages.
His best-known role is as an advocate for “free software,” which he adamantly insists isn’t the same thing as “open source.” The GNU Public License (GPL) is the expression of the free software concept.
Possibly the best-known software engineer in the world is Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system. Being unsatisfied with any of the versions of Unix that could run on microcomputers, he decided to develop his own. This resulted in his release of Linux under the GPL in 1991. Many other developers started working on it, and today we have its many variants.
In 2005 he released Git, a distributed source code management system. Today it forms the basis of GitHub and GitLab, which handle a large proportion of the open-source and free software development projects in the world, as well as many private ones. He continues to work on the development of the Linux kernel.