Archive for November 27, 2009

Being Thankful for Luck

One of the main themes in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is that much of a person’s success in life is due to factors outside of his or her control, like the month or year of birth.  Yes, hard work is critical, but other factors play a significant role. Since here in the United States we are celebrating Thanksgiving this weekend, I was thinking about the luck that gave me a leg up. Not everyone gets to be a professor at a top CS department — how’d I luck out?

In 1979, I was a high school junior, and a computer store opened up not three blocks from my house.  I was already mad for computers, having already taken classes in Basic, Fortran, and Cobol.  So, I went to ask for a job.  I wanted a job programming computers.  I got a job folding envelopes and taking out the trash.  But heck, I got a job in a computer store not 10 minutes from my house! I had access to computer magazines and books, to all kinds of oddball machines (from Altairs and Imsai’s, to Exidy Sorcerers and Pertec 2000’s), and to people who knew about how these things worked.  I worked my way into small programming jobs, then into helping repair computers (though I’m still awful with a soldering iron), and into the store’s other business, writing custom software.

What a wonderful job that was!  During the summer of 1979, I worked 45 hours a week, and then spent all night reading everything I could get my hands on about computing.  I easily spent thousands of hours learning about computing through that job over the two years I was there.  I learned 6502, 6800, and 8080/Z-80 assembler language.  I learned about TTL and CMOS chips.  I was humiliated when I got critiqued about how I wrote code for the first time, and still came back for more.  I booted our CP/M hard disk system (with a massive 10 Mb disk!) by loading the JMP instruction and address via switches on the front panel.  I felt that I really had an understanding of how the computer worked, from the chips to the high level language.

When I went to Wayne State University, I got a job as an undergraduate in a robotics lab. I got the job because I could help build the milling machine system they were building in Applesoft Basic, and I knew 6800 machine language to help with the 6802 boards that the grad students worked on–both skills from my job at the computer store.  The director of that lab recommended me to his friend, a recruiter from Bell Labs.  When I went to a summer internship in 1982 in New Jersey, I met kids who were planning on going to graduate school, which I had never thought that much about.  I took a class in UNIX Shell where the instructor happened to mention Smalltalk.  When I looked up Smalltalk, I found “Personal Dynamic Media,” and decided that I wanted to work in education and computing.

Yes, I work hard, but I also recognize that things totally beyond my control — like a computer store opening nearby that needed its trash taken out — has had a huge influence in my life.  For that, I am grateful.  As an educator, I think about those students who don’t get those kinds of breaks, and how we can help them to be successful. Maybe we “create our own luck.”  Maybe we can also create it for others.

November 27, 2009 at 5:53 pm Leave a comment


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