You Have to Explain Something to a Computer

9 Aug 2008 /

When you’re doing programming, you have to explain something to a computer, which is dumb. When you’re writing a document for a human being to understand, the human being will look at it and nod his head and say, “Yeah, this makes sense.” But there are all kinds of ambiguities and vagueness that you don’t realize until you try to put it into a computer. Then all of a sudden, almost every five minutes as you’re writing the code, a question comes up that wasn’t addressed in the specification. “What if this combination occurs?” It just didn’t occur to the person writing the design specification. When you’re faced with doing the implementation, a person who has been delegated the job of working from a design would have to say, “Well, hmm, I don’t know what the designer meant by this.”

It’s so hard to do the design unless you’re faced with the low-level aspects of it, explaining it to a machine instead of to another person.

— Donald Knuth, Communications of the ACM 58, 8 (Aug. 2008)

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