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Thirty Years C++. Interview with Bjarne Stroustrup

by Roberto V. Zicari on July 23, 2020

“If you keep your good ideas to yourself, they are useless; you could just as well have been doing crossword puzzles. Only by articulating your ideas and making them accessible through writing and talks do they become a contribution.” –Bjarne Stroustrup

Back in 2007 I had the pleasure to interview Bjarne Stroustrup, the inventor of  C++ programming language. Thirteen years later…, I still have the pleasure to publish an interview with Bjarne.


Q1. You have learned the fundamentals of object-oriented programming from Kristen Nygaard co-inventor of the Simula object-oriented programming (together with Ole-Johan Dahl back in the 1960s) who often visited your university in Denmark. How did Kristen Nygaard influence your career path?

Bjarne Stroustrup:  Kristen was a very interesting and impressive character. He was, of course, highly creative, and also a giant in every way. For starters he was about 6’6” and apparently quite as wide. When so inspired, he could deliver crushing bear hugs. Having a discussion with him on any topic – say programming, crime fiction, or labor policies – was invariably interesting, sometime inspiring.

As a young Masters student, I met him often because my student office was at the bottom of the stairs leading to the guest apartment. Each month he’d come down from Oslo for a week or so. Upon arrival, he’d call to me (paraphrasing) “round up the usual suspects” and my job was then to deliver half-a-dozen good students and a crate of beer. We then talked – meaning that Kristen poured out information on a variety of topics – for a couple of hours. I learned a lot about design from that, and the basics of object-oriented programming; the Scandinavian school of OOP, of course, where design and modeling the real world in code play major roles.

Q2. In 1979, you received a PhD in computer science from the University of Cambridge, under the supervision of  David Wheeler. What did you learn from David Wheeler that was useful for your future work?

Bjarne Stroustrup:  David Wheeler was very much in a class of his own. His problem-solving skills and design abilities were legendary. His teaching style was interesting. Each week, I came to his office to tell him what great ideas I had had or encountered during the week. His response was predicable along the lines of “yes, Bjarne, that’s not a bad idea; in fact, we almost used that for the EDSAC-2.” That is, he’d had that idea about the time I entered primary school and rejected it in favor of something better. I hear that some students found that style of response hard to deal with, but I was fascinated because David then proceeded to clarify my original ideas, evaluate them in context and elaborate on their strengths, weaknesses, possible improvements, and alternatives. With a few follow-up questions from me, he’d continue discussing problems, solutions, and tradeoffs for an hour or more. He taught me a lot about how to explore design spaces and also how to explain ideas – always based on concrete examples. I found his formal lectures terminally boring, and I don’t think he liked giving them, his strengths were elsewhere.

On my first day in Cambridge, he asked me “what’s the difference between a Masters and a PhD?” I didn’t know. “If I have to tell you what to do, it’s a Masters” he said and proceeded to – ever so politely – indicate that a Cambridge Masters was a fate worse than death. I didn’t mind because – as he had probably forgotten – I had just completed a perfectly good Masters in Mathematics with Computer Science from the University of Aarhus. In the years he supervised me, I don’t think he gave me more than one single direct advice. On my last day before leaving Cambridge after completing my thesis, he took me out to lunch and said “you are going to Bell Labs; that’s a very good place with many excellent people, but it’s also a bit of a black hole: good people go in and are never heard from again, whatever you do, keep a high external profile.” That fitted perfectly with my view that if you keep your good ideas to yourself, they are useless; you could just as well have been doing crossword puzzles. Only by articulating your ideas and making them accessible through writing and talks do they become a contribution.

David had a great track record with both hardware and software. That appealed to me.

Both David Wheeler and Kristen Nygaard honest, kind, and generous people – people you could trust and who worked hard for what they believed to be important.

Q3. You are quoted saying, that you designed C++ back in 1979 to answer to the question “How do you directly manipulate hardware and also support efficient high-level abstraction?” Do you still believe this was a good idea? 

Bjarne Stroustrup:  Definitely! Dennis Ritchie famously distinguished between languages designed “to solve a problem” and languages designed “to prove a point.” Like C, C++ is of the former category. The borderline between software and hardware is interesting, challenging, constantly changing, and constantly increasing in importance. The fundamental idea of C++ was to provide support for direct access to hardware, based on C’s model and then to allow people to “escape” to higher levels of expression through (what became known as) zero-overhead abstraction. There seems to be a never-ending need for code in that design space. I started with C plus Simula-like classes and over the years improvements (such as templates) have greatly increased C++’s expressive power and optimizability.

Q4. Why did you choose C as a base for your work? 

Bjarne Stroustrup: I decided to base my new tool/language one something, rather than start from scratch. I wanted to be part of a technical community and not re-hash all the fundamental design decisions. I knew at least a dozen languages that gave flexibility and good access to hardware facilities that I could have built upon. For example, I was acquainted with Algol 68 and liked its type system, but it didn’t have much of an industrial community.
C’s support for static type checking was weak, but the local support and community was superb: Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan were just across the corridor from me! Also, its way of dealing with hardware was excellent, so I decided base my work on C and add to it as needed, starting with function argument checking and classes with constructors and destructors.

Q5. You also wrote that one way of looking at C++ is as the result of decades of three contradictory demands: Make the language simpler! Add these two essential features now!! Don’t break (any of) my code!!! Can you please explain what do you mean with these demands? 

Bjarne Stroustrup:  Many people have very reasonable wishes for improvement, but often those wishes are contradictory and any good design must involve tradeoffs.

  • Clearly C++ has undesirable complexity and “warts” that we’d like to remove. I am on record saying that it would be possible to build a language 1/10th of the size of C++ (by any measure) without reducing its expressive power or run-time power (HOPL3). That would not be easy, and I don’t think current attempts are likely to succeed, but I consider it possible and desirable.
  • Unfortunately, achieving this reasonable aim would break on the order of half a trillion lines of code, outdate huge amounts of teaching material, and outdate many programmers’ hard-earned experience.
    Many, possibly even most, organizations would still find themselves dependent on C++ for many more years, possibly decades. Automatic and guaranteed correct source-to-source translation could ease the pain, but it is hard to translate from messy code to cleaner code and much crucial C++ code manipulates tricky aspects of hardware.
  • Finally, few people want just simplification. They also want new facilities, that will allow them to cleanly express something is very hard to express in C++. They want novel features that necessarily makes the language bigger.
  • We simply cannot have all we want. That should not make us despondent or paralyzed, though. Progress is possible, but it involves painful compromises and careful design. It is worth remembering that every long-lived and widely used language will contain feature that in retrospect could be seriously improved or replaced with better alternatives. It will also have a large code base that doesn’t live up to modern standards of design and implementation. This is an unavoidable price of success.

Q6. C++ 1979-2020. What are the main lessons you have learned in all these years?

Bjarne Stroustrup:  There are many lessons, so it is hard to pick a main one. I assume you mean programming language design lessons.

Fundamental decisions are important and hard to change. Once in real-world use, basic language decisions cannot be changed. Fashions are seductive and hard to resist, but change over timespans shorter than the lifetime of a language. It is important to be a bit humble and suspicious about one’s own certainties. Often, the first reasonable solution you find isn’t the best in the longer run. Stability over decades is a feature. You don’t know what people are going to use the language for, or how. No one language and no one programming style will serve all users well.

Complete type safety and complete general resource management have been ideals for C++ from the very beginning (1979). However, given the need for generality and uncompromising performance, these were ideals that could be approached only incrementally as our understanding and technology improved. Arbitrary C++ code cannot be guaranteed type- and resource-safe and we cannot modify the language to offer such guarantees without breaking billions of lines of code. However, we have now reached the point where we can guarantee complete type safety and resource safety by using a combination of guidelines, library support, and static analysis: The C++ Core Guidelines. I outlined the principles of the Core Guidelines in a 2015 paper. Currently a static analyzer supporting the Core Guidelines ships with Microsoft Visual Studio. I hope to see support for the Guidelines that is not part of a single implementation so that their use could become universal.

My appreciation of tool support has grown over the years. We don’t write programs in just a programming language, but in a specific tool chain and specific environment made up of libraries and conventions.
The C++ world offers a bewildering variety of tools and libraries. Many are superb, but there is no dominant “unofficial standards” so it is very hard to choose and to collaborate with people who made different choices. I hope for come convergence that would significantly help C++ developers and C++ teaching. My HOPL-4 paper,Thriving in a crowded and changing world: C++ 2006–2020, has a discussion of that.

Q7. Who is still using C++?

Bjarne Stroustrup:  More developers than ever. C++ is the basis of many, many systems and applications, including some of our most widely used and best-known systems. My HOPL-4 paper, Thriving in a crowded and changing world: C++ 2006–2020, has a discussion of that. Major users include Google, Facebook, the semiconductor industry, gaming, finance, automotive and aerospace, medicine, biology, high-energy physics, and astronomy. Much is, however, invisible to end users.

Developers are hard to count, but surveys say about 4.5 million C++ users, and increasing. I have even heard “5 millions.” We don’t really have good ways of counting. Many measures, such as Tiobe, count “noise”; that is, mentions on the Web, but one enthusiastic student posts much more than 200 busy developers of important applications.

Q8. In this time of Artificial Intelligence, is C++ still relevant? 

Bjarne Stroustrup:  Certainly! C++ is the basis of most current AI/ML. Most new automobile software is C++, as is much high-performance software. Whatever language you use for AI/ML, the implementation usually critically involves some C++ library, such as Tensorflow. A serious data science scientist expressed it like this: I spend 97% of my time writing Python and my computer uses 98.5% of its cycles running C++ to execute that.

Q9. What are in your opinion the most interesting programming languages currently available? 

Bjarne Stroustrup: Maybe C++. Many of the ideas that are driving modern language development comes from C++ or have been brought into the mainstream through C++: RAII for general resource management. Templates for generic programming. Templates and constexpr function for compile-time evaluation. Various concurrency mechanisms. In turn, C++ of course owes much to earlier languages and research. For future developments that will affect programming techniques, I’d keep an eye on static reflection.

Much interesting work is going on in functional languages and in “Scripting” (e.g., TypeScript).

Q10. Why did you decide to leave a full-time job in academia and join Morgan Stanley?

Bjarne Stroustrup:  There were a few related reasons.

Over a decade, I had done most of the things a career academic do: teaching undergraduates, teaching graduate students, graduating PhDs, curriculum planning, written textbooks (e.g. Programming — Principles and Practice Using C++ (Second Edition)), written conference and journal research papers (e.g., Specifying C++ Concepts), applied and received research grants, sat on university committees. It was no longer new, interesting, and challenging.

I felt that I needed to get back “to the coal face”, to industry, to make sure that my work and opinions were still relevant. My interests in scale, reliability, performance, and maintainability were hard to pursue in academia.

I felt the need to get closer to my family in New York City and in Europe.

Morgan Stanley was in New York City, had very interesting problems related to reliability and performance of distributed systems, large C++ code bases, and – a bit of a surprise to me given the reputation of the finance industry – many nice people to work with.

Q11. You are also a Visiting Professor in Computer Science at Columbia University. What is the key message you wish to give to young students?

Bjarne Stroustrup:  Our civilization depends critically on software. We must improve our systems and to do that we need to become more professional. That’s the same message I’d try to send to experienced developers, managers, and executive.

Also I talk about the design principles of C++ and show concrete examples of how they were put into practice over the decades. You cannot teach design in the abstract.

Qx Anything else you wish to add?

Bjarne Stroustrup:  Education is important, but not everyone who want to write software needs the same education. We should make sure that there is a well-supported path through the educational maze for people who will write our critical systems, the ones we rely upon for our lives and livelihoods. We need to strive for a degree of professionalism equal to what we see in the best medical doctors and engineers.
I wrote a couple of papers about that: What should we teach software developers? Why? And Software Development for Infrastructure .



Bjarne Stroustrup is the designer and original implementer of C++ as well as the author of The C++ Programming Language (4thEdition) and A Tour of C++ (2nd edition), Programming: Principles and Practice using C++ (2nd  Edition), and many popular and academic publications.
Dr. Stroustrup is a Technical Fellow and Managing Director in the technology division of Morgan Stanley in New York City as well as a visiting professor at Columbia University. He is a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, and an IEEE, ACM, and CHM fellow. He is the recipient of the 2018 NAE Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering and the 2017 IET Faraday Medal. He did much of his most important work in Bell Labs.
His research interests include distributed systems, design, programming techniques, software development tools, and programming languages. To make C++ a stable and up-to-date base for real-world software development, he has been a leading figure with the ISO C++ standards effort for 30 years. He holds a master’s in Mathematics from Aarhus University and a PhD in Computer Science from Cambridge University, where he is an honorary fellow of Churchill College.

Related Posts

– 10+1 Questions on Innovation to Bjarne Stroustrup. ODBMS Industry Watch, November 13, 2007

– 2 More Questions to Bjarne Stroustrup: Locations, People and Innovation. ODBMS Industry Watch, December 10, 2007

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