iTuring: Thank you for bringing us Programmers at Work. Thanks to it, readers can get some inspiration while learning about how software revolution pioneers of PC era changed the world. Can you talk about the conception and the objective of this book?
Susan: I am very excited about the publication of the Chinese edition of Programmers at Work and I am grateful to Turing Books for the belief they have shown in the project and the great job they have done translating and bringing the book to China.
I was an English Literature major at Stanford University and always wanted to be a writer. I often read a book series called “Writers at Work” published by the Paris Review. They interviewed famous novelists about how they went about their work and what inspired them. When I worked at Microsoft and got to know programmers, I was struck by the similarities in the creative process. And I wanted to do a book to explore the creative minds behind this PC software revolution. We wanted to explore their habits, their dreams, their inspirations, and their techniques so that everyone could get a peek at the underside of how programs are conceived and developed. In the process it turned out we captured a pretty special moment in history through the conversations with the key innovators of the time.
iTuring: In 1970s and 1980s, software industry emerged as a new rising sun and industry stars sprang up in large numbers. How did you choose those 19 interviewees to sketch the panorama of software industry?
Susan: It was a collaborative process with Bill Gates, Charles Simonyi, my boss Min Yee and myself. We'd meet in Bill's office and bat around names and come up with possibilities. At the time, the industry was small so most of the key programmers were acquainted if not friends. Bill was very excited about the project and took a keen interest in helping us with it. We made a list of candidates trying to gather people who would offer different perspectives and come from different segments of the industry whether it be operating systems, applications, games. The four of us met and decided who played critical roles in the birth of the industry, who were brilliant thinkers, or who were up and coming young talent. I remember we had several outstanding programmers we wanted to include from Microsoft but we had to leave them out because we wanted to have a balanced offering. We only included Bill and Charles from Microsoft. Though it was interesting because years later several of the individuals featured in the book came to work at Microsoft later in their careers, such as Ray Ozzie, Bob Frankston and Butler Lampson. We actually had only one interview I did that we didn’t include.
iTuring: Although the questions in the book tend to be regular open questions, they vary with each individual. What were the preparations before the interview?
Susan: My goal was to uncover their human side, how they thought and worked and what inspired them, what got their engines racing and how they made the creative connections they did. SO to the extent possible I just wanted to get them talking and let it roll. That was easier with some, and more difficult with others! I tried to be a blank slate in the interview to encourage them to talk in detail and in essence explain to me what it's like to be a creator of software. If I had been a creator of software or an expert like them, I wouldn't have gotten half the material I got and it wouldn't have been in plain English, it would have been in programming jargon. I acted like I didn't know much but listened intently because I wanted to learn. I let them lead me and asked questions based on where they took the conversation. I learned everything I could about the person and application beforehand but only for my background. I didn't want the conversation to get mired in technical details. The interview was designed to give them the freedom to ruminate and roam with their ideas and answers at a high level. With each interview I usually used a similar set of open-ended questions at the start. And there was a lot of editing afterwards and we involved them in that process.
iTuring: Talking to such masters face to face is really fascinating to our readers. Would you please describe the interview that impressed you the most?
Susan: That's a tough question because we are talking about a group of super impressive human beings. Every interview offered a wonderland of amazing insights, connections, and accomplishments. Even the surroundings of the programmers made an impression. Jaron Lanier's house was filled with musical instruments hanging from the ceiling. At Toru Iwatani's office I was greeted by a Robot receptionist. I remember the first interview with Charles Simonyi distinctly because we were working out our system and the questions and testing whether our idea would work and I was pretty nervous. But after two hours with him, walking out of the interview I was bursting with excitement because I knew we had great material and were onto something. These programmers had stories to tell that hadn’t been told. It turned out Charles had fascinating stories to tell about his life in Hungary and his escape from that country in addition to his early experience as a teenager with some of the first early mainframe computers from Russia and then Denmark. It led him out of his country to a completely new life eventually in the United States.
My interview with Toru Iwatani also stood out. He had such a calm presence yet he expressed such lightness and brilliance with how he strove for simple, clean design and compelling addictive game play. And he insisted he wasn't a “programmer” but a designer. He was so far ahead of his time. What we have on the iPhone and iPad today is what he was doing thirty years ago. He also stood out at the time because he was attempting to make games that would appeal to women which seemed like quite a mountain to climb at the time. No one was trying to crack that market. He hit the nail on the head though. The fact that the idea for the game came to him while eating a piece of a pizza (which became the shape for Pac-Man) and he picked the theme of eating rather than shooting because he knew how much women like food was hilarious and oh so brilliant. He’s still sharing his wisdom about game design today as a professor in Japan.
Dan Bricklin also stood out because he was creatively brilliant with his invention of the first spreadsheet called VisiCalc and the fervor and speed with which he carried out the development was impressive but he also suffered the slings and arrows that often happen in high-tech startups when the financial side of the business doesn't go as planned. I could see it had been a painful experience for him. He created the spreadsheet category but didn't reap the huge financial rewards.
iTuring: Did you conclude from the interviews some common causes of their catching up with the PC era and success?
Susan: Successful cutting edge creative people seem to share similar traits and have radar for being in the right place. Programmers love building something useful from nothing, from thin air. They can make unusual leaps of imagination and connections from the concreteness of the physical world to the flexibility of the software world and all the advantages it offers. They are driven and detail oriented and love to be challenged. They dive deep to learn everything they can about what they are focused on. They have strong flexible minds and often construct solutions in their head, they hold the structure of the program in their head much as a writer of stories holds the plot and characters in their head. More than once, the programmers talked about carrying around the entire program construct in their head and then sitting down and coding it out. Usually they work alone or with one other person and pound it out. They don't design by committee.
iTuring: Many of your questions were about the future. You asked the interviewees to make predictions of the future, many of which have come true. But what were you thinking on hearing their answers back then?
Susan: I was scratching my head trying to understand what they were seeing in the future. I thought they were crazy dreamers and most of the time I didn't really believe there was a snowballs chance in hell what they described would happen! Ha. Shows you what I know. That's why I’m the interviewer, not the interviewee!
iTuring: You mentioned in the book that it was the first of the series you planned of the period. So what was the plan actually? Why wasn't it implemented?
Susan: We intended to do additional volumes of interviews with other programmers. But in actuality we captured a special group of people at a special time at the beginning of an industry. It wasn't something that could be easily repeated. When it came to building another list of programmers to feature, we couldn't come up with enough breakthrough programs at the time or programmers with name recognition to justify another volume. Of course that changed over time, particularly once the internet took hold many years later. Many revolutionary new applications and companies emerged from that revolution.
iTuring: If you had a chance to conduct another interview about software industry now, who would you like to interview with?
Susan: That would take some work to develop a great list. They would no doubt offer some fascinating conversations though the challenges of programming today are quite different than what the first generation of PC programmers faced. They were building from a blank slate back then.
Some names that come to mind:
- Sergey Brin and Larry Page—Google
- Jerry Yang and David Filo—Yahoo
- Linus Torvalds—Linux
- Tim Berners Lee—the World Wide Web
- John Carmack—Game Developer-Doom series
- Peter Norvig—Google Director of Research
- Richard Stallman—GNU
- Ken Thompson—Unix
- Shawn Fanning—Napster
- Mark Zucherburg—Facebook
iTuring: In the Chinese edition, we added the life experiences of the nineteen masters after 1985, which is quite interesting. We also noticed that you founded a company after that. May I ask how the interview experiences impact your personal development?
Susan: They were inspiring to say the least and I'm forever grateful for having had the chance to do it and to meet all these special people. They were amazing and yet ordinary at the same time. It definitely fueled my entrepreneurial and creative spirits and made me realize with hard work and a good creative idea good things can happen.
Looking back the book captured the spirit of those times in a way that hadn't been done before. We were at the beginning of the dawning of a new age, the Digital Information Age, and talking to the key creators of it while they were at work on it. That can't be done again probably for another hundred years.
iTuring: Now you are engaged in the hottest mobile development area. Would you like to talk about your concrete ideas and your vision?
Susan: We are having lots of fun with this company Flying Sofa and our first app FocusUP. I am working with three partners who all work in the high tech industry by day and so we work on our games at night and on weekends. Our mission is to create games to help develop concentration and mental fitness, particularly for athletes. Our first program is a number game called FocusUP and it is based on a “concentration number grid” orignally used by Russian Olympic Coaches to evaluate and develop the concentration and focus skills of their athletes. They did it on paper, so now we have developed it in digital form in FocusUp as a game with multiple levels and tools to track your progress. Many professional athletes use the FocusUp grid for training. I first got the idea to make it an app because I play tennis competitively and I wanted to have it in an app for more flexibility rather than using it on paper. We launched the app in December and have several new versions in the works. We're having a lot of fun with it and we'll see where it leads. Anything is possible!