The Joy of Programming
The Guardian, November 15, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
Bill Joy came to the University of Michigan the year the computer centre
opened, at the age of 16. He had been voted "most studious student" by his
graduating class at high school. From then on, the computer centre was his
life. In 1975, Joy enrolled in graduate school at the University of
California, Berkeley. There, he buried himself even deeper in the world of
computer software. Working in collaboration with a small group of
programmers, Joy took on the task of rewriting Unix.
After Berkeley, Joy co-founded Sun Microsystems. There, he rewrote Java, and
his legend grew still further.
settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10 000
hours, which is equivalent to roughly 3 hours a day, or 20 hours a week,
over 10 years. It takes the brain this long to
assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.
to Bill Joy. It's 1971 and he's 16. He's the maths wiz, the kind of student
that schools like MIT, Caltech or the University of Waterloo attract by the
hundreds. Computers were hard to get access to, and renting time on them
cost a fortune. This was the era when computer programs were created using
punch cards. "Programming with cards," one computer scientist from the era
remembers, "did not teach you programming. It taught you patience and
The University of Michigan was one of the first
universities in the world to abandon computer cards for the new system
called time-sharing. Bill Joy arrived on the Ann Arbor campus in the autumn
of 1971. "Do you know what the difference is between the computing cards and
time-sharing?" Joy says. "It's the difference between playing chess by mail
and speed chess."
Joy spent a phenomenal amount of time at
the computer centre. "It was open 24 hours. I would stay there all night,
and just walk home in the morning. In an average week in those years I was
spending more time in the computer centre than on my classes."
Bill Joy was brilliant. "At Michigan, I was probably programming eight or
10 hours a day. By the time I was at Berkeley, I was doing it day
and night. It's five
years. So maybe 10 000 hours."
Is this a general rule of success? Let's test the idea with
two examples: the Beatles and Bill Gates.
The Beatles — John Lennon,
Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr — came to the United States
in February 1964. Lennon and McCartney began playing together in 1957. The
time that elapsed between their founding and their greatest artistic
achievements is about 10 years. In 1960, while they were still a struggling
school rock band, they were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany.
was special about Hamburg was the sheer amount of time the band was forced
to play. John Lennon: "In Liverpool, we'd only ever done one-hour sessions, and we
just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at every one. In Hamburg we
had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing."
The Beatles travelled to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of
1962. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a
half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had
performed live an estimated 1200 times. Most bands today don't perform
1200 times in their entire careers.
Beatles biographer Philip Norman: "They were no good on stage when
they went there and they were very good when they came back. They learned not only stamina, they had to learn
an enormous amount of numbers — cover versions of everything you can think
of, not just rock'n'roll, a bit of jazz, too. They weren't disciplined on
stage at all before that. But when they came back they sounded like no one
else. It was the making of them."
Bill Gates was a brilliant young
maths wiz who discovered computer programming. Dropped out of Harvard.
Started a little computer company called Microsoft with his friends.
Gates' father was a wealthy lawyer in Seattle, and his mother was the
daughter of a well-to-do banker. As a child Gates was precocious, and easily
bored by his studies. So his parents took him out of public school and sent
him to a private school that catered to elite families. In Gates' second year, the school started a computer club, equipped with a time-sharing terminal linked to a mainframe
in Seattle. "The whole idea of time-sharing only got
invented in 1965," Gates says.
From that moment on, Gates lived in
the computer room. He and a number of others began to teach themselves how
to use this strange new device. The parents raised more money to buy time on
the mainframe computer. The students spent it. In one 7-month period in
1971, Gates and his cohorts ran up 1575 hours of computer time on the
mainframe, which averages out at 8 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Bill Gates was presented with an
even more extraordinary series of opportunities than Bill Joy. And virtually
every one of those opportunities gave Gates extra time to practise. By the
time he dropped out of Harvard, he was way past 10 000 hours.
Joy, Gates, and the
Beatles are all undeniably talented. A good part of that "talent" was
desire. The Beatles were willing to play for 8 hours straight, 7
days a week. Joy was willing to stay up all night programming. A key part of
what it means to be talented is being able to practise for hours and hours.
Veterans of Silicon Valley will tell you that the most important date in
the history of the personal computer revolution was January 1975. The perfect age to be in 1975 is young enough to see
the coming revolution but not so old as to have missed it. You want to be 20
or 21, born in 1954 or 1955.
AR Too late for me then.