State-of-the-Art Computer Folklore (part 4)

“I want to believe.”
Photo © 2008 Sunny Ripert CC BY-SA 2.0

This is part 4 in my series of how the Mac reminded me why I fell in love with software development, and why it still matters.

While reading Andy Hertzfeld’s anecdotes (and those of his colleagues) of designing the original Macintosh computer, I was inspired, inspired to take account of my own passions, the passions that these stories reminded me of. Today, I continue that list:

  • I love to create new patterns. I love solving problems through discovery, inventing that which has never existed before. (From part 1.)

  • I love applying principles in new ways. I love working with abstractions, and turning them into concrete expression. I love challenging the status quo, breaking through the limits of what everyone else says is “possible.” (From part 2.)

  • I love achieving status through collaboration, which is compassionate conflict. I am not a baboon. I do not achieve a sense of status by beating up (literally or figuratively) on my colleagues and friends. But I do expect to be recognized for the ideas I bring to the table, and I want to be taken seriously. (From part 3.)

  • I love moving in the right direction. I believe in making the world a better place, one step at a time, and that helps fulfill my need for purpose. Whatever I work on, it’s more than the work itself; it’s also how that work changes the bigger picture.

One of the things that struck me about Andy Hertzfeld’s stories is how deeply the original Mac developers—and Andy in particular—believed in the product. They didn’t just believe in the Mac as a viable computing platform, they believed it was going to change the nature of computing. They believed in the idea of the Mac and in the team that turned this idea into a reality, not just in the machine itself. And this truth became painfully clear when, in Andy’s story, he faced the choice of whether to leave Apple for good:

The main issue was that I wanted to be able to continue to make a difference in the Mac’s evolution, and I felt that no matter what I did on my own, it could only have a small fraction of the impact of work done for Apple…

…but… the idealistic version of the Macintosh team that I yearned for had apparently vanished, subsumed by a large organization of the type that we used to make fun of, riven with bureaucratic obstacles and petty turf wars.

I still occasionally have nightmares in which I’m back in college, and I can’t find my classes; or I need to take an exam but haven’t attended any of the lectures; or the semester is almost over but I don’t even remember what I was even supposed to be learning. And I believe those nightmares are connected to how I dropped out of college.

It happened in my Middler year at Northeastern. I was pursuing an Electrical Engineering degree, an area of practice I had always loved with a personal passion. Indeed, I had aced my Freshman year. Even Western Civ, which I didn’t ace but I did pass, which was a bit of a feat. I particularly remember Freshman Honors Physics. The professor (whose name I have forgotten) stood tall and wore well-groomed silver hair and beard on a serious facial expression. I don’t ever remember him smiling or laughing, not even at a good joke, but I do remember him speaking with a slow, systematic cadence, as he led me through challenging thought experiments that changed the way I look at the world around me. Literally, changed how I think of the physical universe. The lessons I learned in that class still affect my mindset today.

As a Sophomore, I saw the classes start to lose their luster. I had heard through the grapevine that all of the best professors were front-loaded onto the Freshmen, but I didn’t really believe it until my Middler year. By then, all I had left were Chinese-speaking TA’s and Professor Long—whose name I do remember, because it aptly described his teaching style. As I recall, he taught Mechanics, a class that met at eight o’clock in the morning in a stuffy, windowless classroom in the basement of the library building. All I remember of that class is dragging myself out of bed at even-God-ain’t-up-it’s-so-damn-early, cramming myself into that tiny basement room, and dozing off as Professor Long droned to the blackboard for an hour in a monotone voice. I skipped most of those lectures—or blocked them out of my memory—but I believe I passed the course, because the material itself was très facile.

I finally just stopped registering for classes, after I had failed Materials Science twice in a row, and realized I didn’t even care. The education had lost its fascination. It had become rote, all about the learning of facts and figures and formulas. I still loved designing circuits, and I would go on to do EE-related work for various employers. I was also programming embedded software for IEC, and I loved that, too. (See part 1.) But gone were the days when a silver-haired gentleman scholar challenged me to expand my mind.

Fortunately, since then, I’ve learned to identify how I fulfill my needs for growth and purpose, which are so important to me in school and work. And when it comes to software, it’s usually not about the languages and technology. It’s about the process itself. In other words, I could be happy programming online calculator apps… Just expect each new generation of calculator to be an order of magnitude more sophisticated and streamlined than the last. And expect the system itself to become an expert in the art and science of online calculators.

How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? The world may never know, but it can be a lot of fun trying to find out.

(Continued with part 5.)

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