Fatigue is no factor when you are seventeen and caught up in something. This is a quote from Paul Allen’s book, Idea Man. There are a lot of teenagers in our community, some are working this summer, others are in classes, and likely there are more than a few who are bored and want something to do. I hope there are a few that are caught up in something good. Really caught up like Paul Allen was when he was seventeen.
Paul Allen, the co-founder of Micro-Soft, had not taken a computer science course yet. He was working in the summer, getting paid to break the new PDP-10 computer’s operating system at a company called Computer Center Corporation, (C-Cubed). I don’t know if anyone reading this remembers the olden days when we used to rent time on large main frame computers. Timesharing software called TOPS-10 was the target for Paul Allen and Bill Gates. Both were hired to see if they could crash the software. They were working on teletype machines, that is as close as they got to the computer. The wife of a C-Cubed executive’s son attended school with Paul and Bill, and it was she who got them the jobs. The Lakesiders, as they were known in the company were in a computer club together in the school. It was1968. Paul would be a junior in the Fall at Lakeside High School.
Here’s some encouragement for parents. Go ahead and keep driving your kids to those camps, summer jobs and classes this summer. As Paul Allen tells the story, both his parents worked, they were a very modest middle class family. Paul was often “caught up”, but not frequently on school work. His parents, most often his Dad would drive him home from his job, sometimes at midnight. He knew his parents understood. He was one of the lucky ones.
Later that summer when the Lakesiders, debugged PDP-10, the company shut down the project. Then the company agreed to rent computer time to the Lakesiders. Paul and Bill continued to teach themselves about programming. Neophytes need masters, and C-Cubed had world-class programmers who didn’t treat them like nuisances. The students were also known as the “testers”. The computer they were “testing” was the state of the art machine and learning how to break it was an amazing challenge.
I know we are developing a new transportation industry in southern New Mexico. Paul Allen was the original investor in the vehicle that won the XPRIZE and brought Richard Branson to our backyard. He is still investing in the space industry and many other high tech research projects including how the brain works. He started the Allen Institute which is creating a brain atlas of gene expression.
So how does this young kid end up endowing the Allen Institute for $1billion to do brain research. The Institute will create a brain map of a normal brain’s gene expression. Once this control brain is mapped, he believes the researchers will be able to isolate the active genes that trigger Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s and schizophrenia. He wants discovery with “real world” application. Helping millions afflicted with these terrible disorders is equivalent to the challenge that eventually emerged from this summer at C-Cubed. The two things that relate here are young enthusiasts, and a young industry who both needed each other. All were enabled by help from other enthusiasts, parents, industry and schools which connect it all.
Paul Allen realized he had to get into the guts of the PDP-10. To do that, he had to learn assembly code. As Allen writes, “assembly code could execute hundreds of times faster than high-level languages (like BASIC) … with assembly code you are writing right to the hardware…you couldn’t get any faster than that.” We love fast computers. People often call software the brain that operates the computer. More connections.
In a previous article published on June 11, I mentioned the Mathematical Theory of Communications written in 1948. Claude Shannon, working in cryptography, and Paul Allen working on assembly code were asking big questions about what is the nature of communication, and information? It’s the big questions that capture the young. We sometimes underestimate teenagers. Young people can grow if given the chance. Those who are curious, endlessly curios need their parents, their community, and their schools. And we need them. So buy them the books, drive them to jobs or class. Please and thank you.