Free As In Freedom [1] by Sam Williams is an interesting biography of Richard M. Stallman, genius software developer and godfather to much of the "free software" movement. The critique of FaiF by Eric Raymond [2] is equally interesting, particularly in its catalog of common psychological traits of ace hackers: " ... driven, rigidly ethical, ruthlessly analytical, anti-authoritarian, idealistic, careless of normal social rewards, countersuggestible, ... self-analytical ..."

Some of the archetypal coming-of-age hacker traits that Raymond mentions are eerily on-target: " ... knowing what a glider gun was, and being able to sing Tom Lehrer lyrics from memory, and reading Scientific American ..." (Alas, I've gotta plead guilty to all of those!) Asperger's Syndrome? That seems much too armchair-psychoanalytic a diagnosis, though perhaps there are correlations.

But the real hand-grenade that Eric Raymond's essay tosses into the room is his identification of the path that many heavyweight programmers seem to have taken — failure in hard-core technical disciplines. Raymond notes:

The parallelisms go beyond just psychology or attitudes, though. It was pretty normal for us to fling ourselves prodigy-like at mathematics or science, find we lacked either the discipline and maturity or some other quality needed to make it there at the level of our aspirations, and fall back on programming instead. Like Richard, I aspired to be a mathematician — gave a research paper at an AMS conference before I graduated high school, took grad-level courses as a college freshman — but burned out. Others in our cohort could doubtless tell similar stories. But like Richard, we have all tended, then and now, to pass over failure lightly in telling our histories. We, even more than most people, because we were afflicted by the sense that we should not have failed.

A crucial observation. But is it true? Or does the social-misfit failed-theoretical-physicist model of software developer overlook a host of creative coders who got there without crashing and burning during their undergraduate years ... but who don't tend to be articulate cover-story subjects? (Of course, pausing to gather statistics and analyze that would destroy the flow of the essay for most readers.)

Maybe "failure", especially for those who set themselves extraordinarily high goals, is the real life-defining experience. The grade on the test is based on how one reacts to it ...

(see also TerribleObstacles (17 Nov 2000), ExpertiseAndScience (19 Feb 2001), ... )

TopicProgramming - TopicLiterature - TopicMind - TopicProfiles - TopicPersonalHistory - 2004-01-13

(correlates: GreekEagles, PaintingVersusWriting, Franklin on Pride, ...)