What ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ Can Teach Software Developers

AMC this spring launched a new show about the rise of personal computers (and programming).Halt and catch fire, lessons, computer programmers, software development

The period drama “Halt and Catch Fire,” set in Texas, follows a group looking to reverse-engineer an IBM PC—and the pitfalls and challenges that come along with the effort.

The seven episodes (as of this writing) catalogue the ups and downs of building a new computer: from the technology itself to securing funding to the complexities of starting up company. 

The most original thing about it might be its point of view: In 2014, it’s refreshing just to have a new drama devoted to the hard work of collaboration and creation,” reads a review of the pilot from Grantland.

While the show is set in the early 1980s, there are many parallels that apply to today’s computer experts. So, what can modern programmers learn from “Halt and Catch Fire”? Let’s take a look.

Lesson 1: Nothing is easy

Obviously, programmers today have far fewer obstacles than the pioneers of personal computing did in the 1980s. The technology was still in its infancy—the show’s name, “Halt and Catch Fire,” refers to coding that would cause a computer’s CPU to stop functioning.

Even today, any piece of complex code has problems, and aspiring computer engineers should know that the process often involves many versions, modifications and bug-fixes along the way.

Of course, the title is also literal. Scenes show a computer catching fire and nearly burning down a house. (Probably something modern programmers don’t have to worry about.)

Lesson 2: Capital concerns

The characters in early episodes of “Halt” are looking for funding to create their new computer.

It’s a concept that certainly applies today, most notably for software developers at small companies who seek out clients and steady income streams. Likewise, freelance software developers must market themselves in order to secure work.

In the same vein, developers must also deal with clients whose demands may change and alter budgets and timelines. Funding will always be a central concern at any level of software development.

Lesson 3: Building on existing technology

Proprietary technology from IBM is at the heart of “Halt.”

The group works to clone a computer from the tech giant and gain a foothold in the burgeoning industry by creating a more mobile PC (not quite a laptop, but a device that’s able to be moved around from one desk to another).

Many of the steps forward during the evolution of the tech age were built upon previous developments, which is why, in three decades, you see such rapid advancement.

“Halt” follows a storyline similar to the rise of Compaq Computers, a major player in the rise of home computers, according to Internet History Podcast.

And today, many innovations are improvements and upgrades to the existing technology and products.

Lesson 4: Teamwork

A big part of “Halt,” it being a fictional TV show and all, is the dynamic between the main characters. There exists a give and take, and competing interests, among those trying to make the new computer a reality.

In the world of software development, there is also a team aspect, as individuals come together to work on a particular project. Take a look at any software development lifecycle (SDLC) model and you’ll see the levels of input and how the final product comes together.

The ability to work in a team environment is a key attribute of modern programmers.

Lesson 5: We don’t know where we’re going

No spoilers here. We don’t know where “Halt and Catch Fire” is going to end up. The same can be said of software development as an industry.

Companies rise and fall as consumers, employees and industries become accustomed to new ways of doing things electronically. These uses and trends will shape the work of software developers.

If necessity is the mother of invention, our future technology needs will continue to spur advancements in the field.

In the meantime, we can look back at how it all began with AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire.”