By Bob Rhubart
In the early ’60s in a public library in a small English town, a teenage Maurice Naftalin took the first step in a decades-long career when he discovered a book on the ALGOL 60 programming language. “I thought, ‘This looks like it would be a lot of fun,’” Naftalin says.
But he wouldn’t have access to a computer until 1971 while pursuing a postgraduate degree in chemical spectroscopy. One of his classes required him to write small Fortran programs for analyzing the imaging spectra. Other pursuits beckoned, “but I felt like programming was one thing that I really enjoyed, and it seemed like at that time, it was very easy to get a job,” Naftalin explains.
The job he got was with British Steel Corporation, in 1974, where he worked on “an eccentric project” led by someone who had decided to invent a new programming language for operational research. Naftalin landed what he calls his “first real programming job” in 1977 but in 1982 shifted to a life in academia, turning down the ivory towers of Oxford University to teach at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. Two and a half years later, Naftalin moved to Scotland to take a position as a research fellow at the University of Stirling, where he split his time between research and teaching.
While at Stirling, Naftalin wrote a program that was designed to support “a different style of a specification development.” As he explains, “It was about refinement. The idea is you start off with a mathematical specification and you gradually transform it into a program, with every step being mathematically provable. So you end up with a program which you have proved, during its development, is going to satisfy the precise specification you started off with. It’s a very attractive idea. Quite difficult to practice.”
But eight years at Stirling left Naftalin feeling “stuck.” So in 1992 he took a job at Lloyd’s Registry, a 200-year-old company whose original focus had been on certifying the seaworthiness of ships. The company wanted to move into the business of certifying software.
At Lloyd’s, Naftalin worked on the certification of the secondary protection system for the Sizewell nuclear power station, then the biggest nuclear development in Britain. He also worked on certifying the software for the power protection system in the Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft, to ensure that the software met the stringent standards of the Royal Air Force.
In 1996 the internet and the World Wide Web were building up some serious steam and driving interest in Java. Naftalin left Lloyd’s to become a freelance trainer specializing in Java.
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“There was a period right up until the early years of this century when people just wanted to learn Java and you didn’t have to teach them anything else,” Naftalin says. And although Java’s ubiquity has reduced the demand for introductory courses, “people still tend to want courses in Java enterprise technologies and Spring.”
The training process has also changed, as online teaching eclipses classroom courses. “That’s the way you have to go if you want to survive as a trainer.”
That survival also means incorporating new languages—including Python, Kotlin, and Scala—into his course.
But adaptation is nothing new for Naftalin. In a career spanning more than half a century, three forces have dramatically shaped the programming landscape, he says.
The first is the ubiquity of cheap computing power. “When I started,” he explains, “you submitted a deck of cards and then waited for hours to be told that you had a typo on one line of your program.”
The second force is the internet and the ease of distributing programs. Shelves of programming manuals have given way to Stack Overflow and similar sites. “There’s an infinite amount of reference material available for free,” Naftalin observes.
The third force, and the one that was the most surprising to Naftalin, is the influence of free software. “That’s an extraordinary transformation,” he says. “All of this stuff, which was proprietary, behind closed doors, and hidden, is now available for free. These free libraries have transformed the world for programs.”
Along his winding career path and amid all the changes, Naftalin has earned his stripes. A Java Champion and Oracle Groundbreaker Ambassador, Naftalin continues to speak at developer conferences, teach, and write. “I’m not inclined to retire,” he says. “I still haven’t really decided what I want to do when I grow up.”
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Photography by Bob Adler/Getty Images