The shoulders of giants
Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy, two of the fathers of Computer Science, died recently. Reading about their lives put me in a reflective state of mind. I spend most of my waking hours thinking about startups and corporate innovation. Here, I want to celebrate a different form of innovation, one that undergirds much of these other advances.
While studying CS at Stanford, I had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with intellectual titans like McCarthy, Donald Knuth, and Terry Winograd as they roamed the campus. Though I was too naïve (and overworked) to appreciate it at the time, every Stanford CS student was blessed to be able to bask in the warm penumbra of their luminary thinking.
Plenty has been written about Stanford and Silicon Valley’s power as a startup hub. And I’ve obviously personally bought into this unparalleled engine for entrepreneurship. But there’s also a less visible, though equally powerful, force working to create the fundamental breakthroughs that make the development of these companies possible. The work of Ritchie, McCarthy, and others spawn not just companies, but entire fields and professions.
We are taught to stand on the shoulders of giants. To not reinvent the wheel. In software, that’s taken to mean that we should build on top of existing APIs, standards, frameworks, languages, and protocols. Doing so allows developers to make incredibly quick headway. I love both the pace of innovation this produces, and the democratization of programming this enables.
On the flip side, I do worry that all of these powerful tools at our disposal means we’re not re-thinking the fundamentals. Building on top of all this groundwork allows us to make visible progress amazingly quickly. But sometimes, we need to re-invent the wheel. Dennis Ritchie developed the programming language C and helped build the UNIX operating system in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Variants of C are still how people develop most applications today. UNIX is still the bedrock behind everything from the servers that power the Internet to Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and Mac. It’s weird to me that, in an industry that changes so quickly, we’re still using an OS originally developed in the 1960s.
Analogously, from a conceptual point of view, John McCarthy coined the term “Artificial Intelligence” in the 1950s, when computers were in their infancy. He built a fruitful career researching and advancing this field. Over 60 years later, we’re still in the early stages of working through the implications of this intellectual construct.
I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we devoted more energy to fundamentally re-thinking underlying architectures, and freely pursuing fantastical ideas. But such work can be even more hit-or-miss than startups, and the timeframe more distant and uncertain. Unfortunately, this means that the resources and attention devoted to such topics is dwindling. Instead, university research is becoming more specialized. Corporate labs are in long-term decline. Quick hits and early exits are lauded.
These days, most of what passes for “disruptive” and “revolutionary” is narrow and incremental, or worse, pitch and bluster. There’s a lot of angst that current entrepreneurs are not swinging for the fences – too interested in making little apps to create the next Google. But I’m talking about an order of magnitude beyond that: where is the next “Internet” is going to come from, the next UNIX, the next “AI,” the next C? Maybe it’s the circles I frequent, but I don’t encounter as many people striving to create the next Internet as the next Google.
I would like to believe that this is not an either/ or proposition, that we can both build on the existing wealth of knowledge and question it in fundamental ways. Startups are typically rewarded for making quick progress by using current frameworks as scaffolding. They question the status quo and seek to solve scoped needs while driving towards a larger vision. That is what I and others in the community prize, day-in and day-out. Today, I want to spend a moment to celebrate this other group of status-quo-questioners, those that spend their careers creating the fundamental leaps forward that make most startups possible. Here’s to the Dennis Ritchies and John McCarthys of the world.