Life in Code is a consummate insider’s take, rich with local color and anecdotes ... Ullman has a pure passion for computing that doesn’t stop her from recognizing all the ways it can isolate and intimidate — or how unconscious bias works like a sort of snow blindness on the striving (and yes, still overwhelmingly white and male) dreamers who would call themselves disrupters. Like all great writers, she finds the universal in the specific, mixing memoir with industry gossip (cameos by Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, a wry Microsoft dig) and ancillary tales of house cats, dairy farmers, and Julia Child. Code is illuminating and unfailingly clever, but above all it’s a deeply human book: urgent, eloquent, and heartfelt.
Don’t panic, non-nerds. In addition to writing code in multiple computer languages, Ullman has an Ivy League degree in English and knows how to decode her tech-world adventures into accessible narratives for word people ... The first three-fifths of Life in Code is primarily composed of essays published elsewhere between 1994 and 2004, while newer material from 2012 to early 2017 fills out the rest. The technology mentioned within those early chapters often recalls quaint discovery, like finding a chunky, clunky Nokia cellphone in the back of the junk drawer. The piece on preparing computers for the Year 2000 has a musty time-capsule feel, but the philosophical questions posed in other chapters — like those on robotics and artificial intelligence — still resonate.
Ullman is a rare breed, a writer and former software engineer, and she offers a vivid, gripping window into what it is to be shaped by keyboard characters and machine, in which a single wrong tap can bring entire systems crashing down ... But Life in Code isn't focused on what it is to be a female per se. Rather, it is a stream of staccatolike depictions from Ullman's 40-plus-year career. She describes turning down a job from Google's Larry Page and engaging in an e-mail relationship with a guy who could only express his feelings through the medium of code. She writes poignant passages about love, animals, and artificial intelligence. How do computers think? she wonders. To readers who may not know the lingo—abend (another word for 'crash'), Unix, COBOL—prepare for a learning curve. But there are also relatable observations: Those who can't 'do' become project managers, a common tech-world dis. Ullman relishes tech's beauty while fearing what it has created.