Robert Morris: All About Programming

(When I asked Robert Morris to read a draft of "What Doesn't Seem Like Work?" he replied with his own story, which he has allowed me to publish.)

My father tried to interest me in programming somewhat before high school; it didn't work, and I didn't continue then. My life was pretty aimless, and my father delivered some hard words about how boring my life was going to be.

I re-started programming in early high school. I don't remember any gap between re-starting and total absorbtion. Programming was off the radar for nearly everyone at my high school, and was unrelated to studying, so the question of whether it was work never arose. Just as well considering how little effort I put into school. I mentally moved to Bell Labs, first because I was using their computers and software, then because I got a part-time job there in late high school.

Because college acts as such a strong sorter, when I got there it was much more like Bell Labs than it was like high school. I spent time with people like Rich Draves, for whom programming was not work. CS wasn't the same as programming (I still remember my confusion and disappointment at a recursion theory seminar early freshman year), but it was close enough that I could get by.

Even in college it took me a while to admit that it was all about programming. People at Bell Labs believed that CS was not serious, that one must study something with inherent value like math. Not wanting to look like a loser to the people I most admired, I was pretty late in admitting the obvious about math. Straightening myself out was tough, and I was not mentally flexible enough to keep in touch with the Bell Labs people after ignoring their advice.

The idea that one should ask questions about one's own life (e.g. your "What seems like work...?") and act on the answers was completely alien to me in those days, and I doubt I could have absorbed any wisdom in this department.