The Joy of Programming

By Malcolm Gladwell
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.

Researchers have 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.

Back 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 proofreading."

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.

What 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.