There are no projects per se in the Computing Sciences Research Center. – Ken Thompson
I’ve been watching interviews with unix legends the last couple of days on YouTube – when I have a few minutes spare.
For example, there’s one where Brian Kernighan interviews Ken Thompson.
In case you didn’t already know, Ken Thompson was a co-inventor of unix and Brian Kernighan wrote a number of programs and a series of books that helped popularise the system.
Thompson talks about how he had absolutely no ambition – he went to graduate school because a friend applied for him without his knowledge.
He had no ambition, he said, but he was a workaholic.
He was eventually recruited to Bell Labs where he built an operating system under the radar, because Bell had been bitten by a bad experience with another one.
He wanted to make the system but Bell wouldn’t fund it so the team came up with – (he searches for words here) – a lie that they were creating a patent document creation system so they could get funding for a machine and build their operating system as well.
He talks about how he realised that he needed an editor, shell and assembler to build his operating system and, while his wife and one-year old were away for three weeks, he built each part in a week.
In a different interview with Kernighan and Brailsford, Kernighan describes the environment that they worked in.
Bell had no shortage of funding, as it was supported by AT&T and hosted thousands of researchers who were just allowed to get on and work on what interested them.
Kernighan said that in his thirty years there he was never once told what to do.
Instead, at the end of the year, he would write down on one side of A4 what he had done that year – and the managers would use that to decide what to pay him next year.
Now, what would you do if you had that kind of working environment – one where there was no pressure on you at all?
The temptation is to think that people will goof off. They’ll simply do nothing – take the money and squander their time.
The thing is that being idle is actually quite hard.
Most people will struggle to stop and do nothing at all.
And when you’re given the time to think and work on things that interest you, then you can hardly help yourself from coming up with something new and innovative.
There are very few organisations that understand this – or are willing to take the risk of paying someone to work on what they want instead of what the managers want.
In theory, academia should be the kind of place where you can do that – where you can explore ideas free from pressure.
Except the pressure is there as well, the pressure to publish and be at the top of ranking tables – the relentless competition that governments imagine improves standards and results in innovation.
Except, innovation actually comes mostly from people who are just digging away at something that interests them.
Thompson seems to like the analogy of gardening – you work away at it and then something amazing happens as it starts to bloom.
So what can we do if we want to get some of that working environment for ourselves?
There are two things we need.
The first is a determination to work on the things that interest us – we have to make time for them even if that means working late at night or early in the morning.
And it’s actually even better if what we’re working on isn’t directly linked to reward or payment – we want to focus on being intrinsically motivated – working for the sake of the work rather than working for money.
The second thing that that will help is the presence of constraints – not having enough, not working on the latest kit – because constraints are what lead to innovation as we try and overcome obstacles.
Think about this for a second.
Have you been very busy last year?
With all that busyness, what have you done? And is it something you wanted to do?
As the saying goes, you’re either working on your own goals or working on someone else’s goals.
The time to make time for yourself is probably right now.