Saturday, May 23, 2009

10,000 Hours: Bill Joy, Bill Gates and The Beatles

Thanks to Neil Groundwater, long time friend, mentor and Unix legend, who sent me this fascinating article called A gift or hard graft? written by Malcom Gladwell.

The premise of the article is:

"This idea - that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice - surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours."

Gladwell discusses the great amount of time that Bill Joy invested to hone his programming skills:

"According to Joy, he spent a phenomenal amount of time at the computer centre. "It was open 24 hours. I would stay there all night, and just walk home in the morning. In an average week in those years I was spending more time in the computer centre than on my classes. All of us down there had this recurring nightmare of forgetting to show up for class at all, of not even realising we were enrolled.""

Gladwell tells a great story of Bill Joy at Berkeley:

"In 1975, Joy enrolled in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. There, he buried himself even deeper in the world of computer software. During the oral exams for his PhD, he made up a particularly complicated algorithm on the fly that - as one of his many admirers has written - "so stunned his examiners [that] one of them later compared the experience to 'Jesus confounding his elders' "."

The legend of Bill Gates and the amount of time is well documented. What is not well documented is just how hard and long The Beatles worked. I was always under the impression that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were just pure musical geniuses and it just easy. Gladwell corrects this perception:

The Beatles ended up travelling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, of five or more hours a night. Their second trip they played 92 times. Their third trip they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg stints, in November and December 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times, which is extraordinary. Most bands today don't perform 1,200 times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is what set the Beatles apart.

The article ends with a very interesting point about the importance of being born in the years 1954 or 1955 with great summary of Sun's founders:

"By the way, let's not forget Bill Joy. Had he been just a little bit older and had to face the drudgery of programming with computer cards, he says he would have studied science. Bill Joy the computer legend would have been Bill Joy the biologist. In fact, he was born on November 8 1954. And his three fellow founders of Sun Microsystems - one of the oldest and most important of Silicon Valley's software companies? Scott McNealy: born November 13 1954. Vinod Khosla: born January 28 1955. Andy Bechtolsheim: born June 1955. "

Now I know where I went wrong in life, my parents waited four years too long to have me :-)

The Myth of "May You Live In Interesting Times"

The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson writes a very interesting article this morning dispelling the age old myth about the origins of the phrase"May you live in interesting times"

As Mr. Robinson writes today: "May you live in interesting times" is supposed to be an ancient Chinese curse, but I can't find evidence that the saying is Chinese at all, much less that it's ancient. One of the earliest reliable citations seems to be a 1950 short story by the British science-fiction author Eric Frank Russell, writing under the pen name Duncan H. Munro, who quotes the imprecation and then adds: "It isn't a curse any more. It's a blessing."

I nearly forgot, Happy Thanksgiving everyone....