An Interview with Bjarne Stroustrup
On the 1st of January, 1998, Bjarne Stroustrup gave an interview to
the IEEE’s ‘Computer’ magazine.
Naturally, the editors thought he would be giving a retrospective view
of seven years of object-oriented design, using the language he
By the end of the interview, the interviewer got more than he had
bargained for and, subsequently, the editor decided to suppress its
contents, ‘for he good of the industry’ but, as with many of these
things, there was a leak.
Here is a complete transcript of what was was said,unedited, and
unrehearsed, so it isn’t as neat as planned interviews.
You will find it interesting…
Interviewer: Well, it’s been a few years since you changed the world
of software design, how does it feel, looking back?
Stroustrup: Actually, I was thinking about those days, just before you
arrived. Do you remember? Everyone was writing ‘C’ and, the trouble
was, they were pretty damn good at it. Universities got pretty good at
teaching it, too. They were turning out competent – I stress the word
‘competent’ – graduates at a phenomenal rate. That’s what caused the
Stroustrup: Yes, problem. Remember when everyone wrote Cobol?
Interviewer: Of course, I did too
Stroustrup: Well, in the beginning, these guys were like
demi-gods. Their salaries were high, and they were treated like
Interviewer: Those were the days, eh?
Stroustrup: Right. So what happened? IBM got sick of it, and invested
millions in training programmers, till they were a dime a dozen.
Interviewer: That’s why I got out. Salaries dropped within a year, to
the point where being a journalist actually paid better.
Stroustrup: Exactly. Well, the same happened with ‘C’ programmers.
Interviewer: I see, but what’s the point?
Stroustrup: Well, one day, when I was sitting in my office, I thought
of this little scheme, which would redress the balance a little. I
thought ‘I wonder what would happen, if there were a language so
complicated, so difficult to learn, that nobody would ever be able to
swamp the market with programmers? Actually, I got some of the ideas
from X10, you know, X windows. That was such a bitch of a graphics
system, that it only just ran on those Sun 3/60 things. They had all
the ingredients for what I wanted. A really ridiculously complex
syntax, obscure functions, and pseudo-OO structure. Even now, nobody
writes raw X-windows code. Motif is the only way to go if you want to
retain your sanity.
Interviewer: You’re kidding…?
Stroustrup: Not a bit of it. In fact, there was another problem. Unix
was written in ‘C’, which meant that any ‘C’ programmer could very
easily become a systems programmer. Remember what a mainframe systems
programmer used to earn?
Interviewer: You bet I do, that’s what I used to do.
Stroustrup: OK, so this new language had to divorce itself from Unix,
by hiding all the system calls that bound the two together so
nicely. This would enable guys who only knew about DOS to earn a
decent living too.
Interviewer: I don’t believe you said that…
Stroustrup: Well, it’s been long enough, now, and I believe most
people have figured out for themselves that C++ is a waste of time
but, I must say, it’s taken them a lot longer than I thought it
Interviewer: So how exactly did you do it?
Stroustrup: It was only supposed to be a joke, I never thought people
would take the book seriously. Anyone with half a brain can see that
object-oriented programming is counter-intuitive, illogical and
Stroustrup: And as for ‘re-useable code’ – when did you ever hear of a
company re-using its code?
Interviewer: Well, never, actually, but…
Stroustrup: There you are then. Mind you, a few tried, in the early
days. There was this Oregon company – Mentor Graphics, I think they
were called – really caught a cold trying to rewrite everything in C++
in about ’90 or ’91. I felt sorry for them really, but I thought
people would learn from their mistakes.
Interviewer: Obviously, they didn’t?
Stroustrup: Not in the slightest. Trouble is, most companies hush-up
all their major blunders, and explaining a $30 million loss to the
shareholders would have been difficult. Give them their due, though,
they made it work in the end.
Interviewer: They did? Well, there you are then, it proves O-O
Stroustrup: Well, almost. The executable was so huge, it took five
minutes to load, on an HP workstation, with 128MB of RAM. Then it ran
like treacle. Actually, I thought this would be a major
stumbling-block, and I’d get found out within a week, but nobody
cared. Sun and HP were only too glad to sell enormously powerful
boxes, with huge resources just to run trivial programs. You know,
when we had our first C++ compiler, at AT&T, I compiled ‘Hello World’,
and couldn’t believe the size of the executable. 2.1MB
Interviewer: What? Well, compilers have come a long way, since
Stroustrup: They have? Try it on the latest version of g++ – you
won’t get much change out of half a megabyte. Also, there are several
quite recent examples for you, from all over the world. British
Telecom had a major disaster on their hands but, luckily, managed to
scrap the whole thing and start again. They were luckier than
Australian Telecom. Now I hear that Siemens is building a dinosaur,
and getting more and more worried as the size of the hardware gets
bigger, to accommodate the executables. Isn’t multiple inheritance a
Interviewer: Yes, but C++ is basically a sound language.
Stroustrup: You really believe that, don’t you? Have you ever sat
down and worked on a C++ project? Here’s what happens: First, I’ve
put in enough pitfalls to make sure that only the most trivial
projects will work first time. Take operator overloading. At the end
of the project, almost every module has it, usually, because guys feel
they really should do it, as it was in their training course. The same
operator then means something totally different in every module. Try
pulling that lot together, when you have a hundred or so modules. And
as for data hiding. God, I sometimes can’t help laughing when I hear
about the problems companies have making their modules talk to each
other. I think the word ‘synergistic’ was specially invented to twist
the knife in a project manager’s ribs.
Interviewer: I have to say, I’m beginning to be quite appalled at all
this. You say you did it to raise programmers’ salaries? That’s
Stroustrup: Not really. Everyone has a choice. I didn’t expect the
thing to get so much out of hand. Anyway, I basically succeeded. C++
is dying off now, but programmers still get high salaries – especially
those poor devils who have to maintain all this crap. You do realise,
it’s impossible to maintain a large C++ software module if you didn’t
actually write it?
Interviewer: How come?
Stroustrup: You are out of touch, aren’t you? Remember the
Interviewer: Yes, of course.
Stroustrup: Remember how long it took to grope through the header
files only to find that ‘RoofRaised’ was a double precision number?
Well, imagine how long it takes to find all the implicit typedefs in
all the Classes in a major project.
Interviewer: So how do you reckon you’ve succeeded?
Stroustrup: Remember the length of the average-sized ‘C’ project?
About 6 months. Not nearly long enough for a guy with a wife and kids
to earn enough to have a decent standard of living. Take the same
project, design it in C++ and what do you get? I’ll tell you. One to
two years. Isn’t that great? All that job security, just through one
mistake of judgement. And another thing. The universities haven’t
been teaching ‘C’ for such a long time, there’s now a shortage of
decent ‘C’ programmers. Especially those who know anything about Unix
systems programming. How many guys would know what to do with
‘malloc’, when they’ve used ‘new’ all these years – and never bothered
to check the return code. In fact, most C++ programmers throw away
their return codes. Whatever happened to good ol’ ‘-1′? At least you
knew you had an error, without bogging the thing down in all that
‘throw’ ‘catch’ ‘try’ stuff.
Interviewer: But, surely, inheritance does save a lot of time?
Stroustrup: does it? Have you ever noticed the difference between a
‘C’ project plan, and a C++ project plan? The planning stage for a
C++ project is three times as long. Precisely to make sure that
everything which should be inherited is, and what shouldn’t
isn’t. Then, they still get it wrong. Whoever heard of memory leaks
in a ‘C’ program? Now finding them is a major industry. Most
companies give up, and send the product out, knowing it leaks like a
sieve, simply to avoid the expense of tracking them all down.
Interviewer: There are tools…
Stroustrup: Most of which were written in C++.
Interviewer: If we publish this, you’ll probably get lynched, you do
Stroustrup: I doubt it. As I said, C++ is way past its peak now, and
no company in its right mind would start a C++ project without a pilot
trial. That should convince them that it’s the road to disaster. If
not, they deserve all they get. You know, I tried to convince Dennis
Ritchie to rewrite Unix inC++.
Interviewer: Oh my God. What did he say?
Stroustrup: Well, luckily, he has a good sense of humor. I think both
he and Brian figured out what I was doing, in the early days, but
never let on. He said he’d help me write a C++ version of DOS, if I
Interviewer: Were you?
Stroustrup: Actually, I did write DOS in C++, I’ll give you a demo
when we’re through. I have it running on a Sparc 20 in the computer
room. Goes like a rocket on 4 CPU’s, and only takes up 70 megs of
Interviewer: What’s it like on a PC?
Stroustrup: Now you’re kidding. Haven’t you ever seen Windows ’95? I
think of that as my biggest success. Nearly blew the game before I was
Interviewer: You know, that idea of a Unix++ has really got me
thinking. Somewhere out there, there’s a guy going to try it.
Stroustrup: Not after they read this interview.
Interviewer: I’m sorry, but I don’t see us being able to publish any
Stroustrup: But it’s the story of the century. I only want to be
remembered by my fellow programmers, for what I’ve done for them. You
know how much a C++ guy can get these days?
Interviewer: Last I heard, a really top guy is worth $70 – $80 an
Stroustrup: See? And I bet he earns it. Keeping track of all the
gotchas I put into C++ is no easy job. And, as I said before, every
C++ programmer feels bound by some mystic promise to use every damn
element of the language on every project. Actually, that really annoys
me sometimes, even though it serves my original purpose. I almost like
the language after all this time.
Interviewer: You mean you didn’t before?
Stroustrup: Hated it. It even looks clumsy, don’t you agree? But when
the book royalties started to come in… well, you get the picture.
Interviewer: Just a minute. What about references? You must admit,
you improved on ‘C’ pointers.
Stroustrup: Hmm. I’ve always wondered about that. Originally, I
thought I had. Then, one day I was discussing this with a guy who’d
written C++ from the beginning. He said he could never remember
whether his variables were referenced or dereferenced, so he always
used pointers. He said the little asterisk always reminded him.
Interviewer: Well, at this point, I usually say ‘thank you very much’
but it hardly seems adequate.
Stroustrup: Promise me you’ll publish this. My conscience is getting
the better of me these days.
Interviewer: I’ll let you know, but I think I know what my editor will
Stroustrup: Who’d believe it anyway? Although, can you send me a copy
of that tape?
Interviewer: I can do that.
[Note - for the humor-impaired, not a true story]