May 27, 2008

The Uncelebrated Hacker

Filed under: Uncategorized — numist @ 7:10 pm

As per my previous post about losing living history, and my addiction to stories, I have another quick lament.

Recall the article on Richard Feynman from the previous post. This was a story about a Nobel Laureate written by a pretty successful guy who worked with him. Big stuff there.

Before I get myself into trouble, I don’t mean to say that Feynman wasn’t incredibly smart, he was one of the smartest men the world will ever see. However, there are other boffins that go uncelebrated, and their stories are no less important than those of the Nobel Laureates and people who have algorithms and numbers named after them.

As Computer Science has become more mature, I think that there are a more crazy hackers that go uncelebrated, even unknown, today than ever before. This happens in every industry as it develops. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Engineers in our field have shifted away from solving new problems, to implementing solutions to known problems in new places because most of the problems we come across these days are thoroughly solved, which is much less interesting. Just as most work in Physics is arguably implementation of existing theories and not coming up with new ones, the computer field is no longer the Wild West frontier it used to be. There will still be neat developments (I think ZFS is one of them), but there won’t be as many, even though there are at least as many brilliant people in the field.
  • There are also more engineers now than ever before, so standing out in the crowd is much harder. The smartest people don’t tend to publicize themselves (they prefer to use their time to be awesome instead), and it’s hard to take the time to recall what happened when you are around someone who mentally outclasses you, so when you retell a story it usually sounds like “wow this guy is smart” instead of “here is how/why this person is smart,” the latter of which is more interesting. This is probably why most of the best stories are either told firsthand in speech, or secondhand in writing.
  • Another part of the problem is that it’s harder to get an algorithm or number named after you anymore than it used to be (an artifact of the computer field maturing). Even when there is an issue to be solved, the problems we run into now usually don’t have very simple solutions. Compare the implementations of ZFS and the Fast File System (UFS1). FFS was theoretically interesting, but implementing it was not very difficult. ZFS was also theoretically interesting, but the implementation required a team of engineers.
  • Nowadays, you have to be more than just smart to invent something in computers (or any mature field), you have to be able to find problems to solve, and also be able to realize which problems are irrelevant or invalid.

There are a lot of things that contribute to the problem of uncelebrated hackers. There’s a lot to learn from their stories, if only we could hear them.

Who are the smartest people you know? What have they done? Any good stories?


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