Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How much education do computing innovators usually have?

Today brings us this tweet from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Getting straight "A"s does not guarantee success, but plenty of evidence shows that not getting "A"s doesn't preclude it.

This is fine, as far as it goes. Having an imperfect academic record does not doom you to a life of mediocrity. And it is crucially important for anyone, no matter how you are assessed by the educational system, to continue striving towards a meaningful and successful life, however you choose to define that.

However, I foolishly clicked on the thread to see what people's reactions were, and came upon someone saying this:

@neiltyson you realize Everything you pretty much use on the Internet were created by people who never got grades at all.

Ugh. Sometimes I read something so wrong that I'm pretty much compelled to spend a couple of hours of my life disproving it. (Of course, this particular semi-grammatical tweet is so inconsequential that it's comical that it affects me at all, but it represents a much broader current of popular thought about the world of computing.)

The Internet is an outgrowth of computing and communications technology. Below, I have listed the educational attainment of a few dozen people who, it seems to me, created things that are important to the Internet as it exists today.

The list is, one might say, not drawn to scale. Everyone just gets a bullet, even though some are giants who left behind towering contributions that will be studied centuries from now, and others merely made something that seems to be widely used or influential today. I've also used a fairly subjective criterion for selecting the people: these are simply names that occurred to me in about ten minutes of thinking about the technology that's literally sitting in front of my face as I write this. Nevertheless, I think it is a decent sample, and although it can be improved around the edges, I doubt that you will be able to supply thirty more names that are better candidates and whose educations differ dramatically from these people's.

(I have used "bac." to indicate any 4-year undergraduate degree (B.A., B.S., or equivalent) since I don't find it useful, for this purpose, to distinguish among them.)

Foundations of computing

  • Alan Turing: Cambridge bac., Ph.D.
  • Alonzo Church: Princeton bac., Ph.D.

Networking and secure communication

  • Vint Cerf: UCLA Ph.D.
  • Bob Kahn: Princeton Ph.D.
  • Tim Berners-Lee: Oxford bac.
  • Robert Metcalfe: MIT bac., Harvard Ph.D.
  • David Boggs: Princeton bac., Stanford Ph.D.
  • Ron Rivest: Yale bac., Stanford Ph.D.
  • Adi Shamir: Tel Aviv bac., Weizmann Institute Ph.D.
  • Leonard Adleman: UC Berkeley bac., UC Berkeley Ph.D.
  • Whitfield Diffie: MIT bac., Stanford Ph.D. dropout.
  • Martin Hellman: NYU bac., Stanford Ph.D.
  • Ralph Merkle: UC Berkeley bac./M.S., Stanford Ph.D.

Operating systems and programming languages

  • Ken Thompson: Berkeley bac., M.S.
  • Dennis Ritchie: Harvard bac., Ph.D.
  • Rob Pike: unknown, possibly no college. Caltech (according to comment; bac.?)
  • Doug Engelbart: UC Berkeley Ph.D.
  • John McCarthy: Caltech bac.; Princeton Ph.D.
  • Kirsten Nygaard: U. of Oslo M.S.
  • Ole-Johan Dahl: U. of Oslo M.S.
  • Alan Kay: U. of Utah Ph.D.
  • Ivan Sutherland: CMU bac., Caltech M.S., MIT Ph.D.
  • Dan Ingalls: Harvard bac., Stanford M.S., Ph.D. dropout.
  • James Gosling: U. of Calgary bac., CMU Ph.D.
  • Richard Stallman: MIT bac., MIT Ph.D. dropout.
  • Bjarne Stroustrup: Aarhus M.S., Cambridge Ph.D.
  • Linus Torvalds: U. of Helsinki M.S.
  • Alan Cox: Swansea University dropout.
  • Theodore Ts'o: MIT bac.
  • Brendan Eich: Santa Clara bac., UIUC M.S.
  • Guido Van Rossum: U. of Amsterdam bac./M.S.
  • Yukihiro Matsumoto: U. of Tsukuba bac.

Founders of important technology companies

  • Gordon Moore: UC Berkeley bac., Caltech Ph.D.
  • Steve Wozniak: UC Berkeley dropout.
  • Steve Jobs: Reed College dropout.
  • Bill Gates: Harvard dropout.
  • John Warnock (Adobe): U. of Utah Ph.D.
  • Charles Gesche (Adobe): CMU Ph.D.
  • Marc Andreessen: UIUC bac.
  • Larry Page: Michigan bac.; Stanford Ph.D. dropout.
  • Sergey Brin: U. of Maryland bac.; Stanford Ph.D. dropout.
  • Jeff Bezos: Princeton bac.
  • Jerry Yang: Stanford bac./M.S.
  • David Filo: Tulane bac., Stanford M.S.
  • Diane Greene (VMWare): MIT M.S., Berkeley M.S.
  • Mendel Rosenblum (VMWare): Berkeley Ph.D.
  • Ed Bugnion (VMWare): Stanford M.S., Stanford Ph.D. dropout.
  • Evan Williams: U. of Nebraska dropout.
  • Mark Zuckerberg: Harvard dropout.

Assorted hackers

  • Jamie Zawinski: college dropout, institution unknown.
  • John Carmack: U. of Missouri dropout.
  • Michael Abrash: U. of Pennsylvania Ph.D. dropout.
  • Jeff Dean: U. of Washington Ph.D.
  • Sanjay Ghemawat: Cornell bac, MIT Ph.D.
  • Russ Cox: Harvard bac., MIT Ph.D.
  • Paul Buchheit: Case Western Reserve bac.
  • Lars Bak: Aarhus bac./M.A.
  • Paul Graham: Cornell bac.; Harvard Ph.D.

One thing you will notice right away is that there are lots of Ph.D.s and Master's degrees, generally from highly-ranked universities. A lot. Obviously far more than the general population, and probably more than leaders in most other industries. The notion that invention and innovation in computing are done mostly by scruffy, uncredentialed twenty-year-olds is a myth. Yes, you can see a substantial minority of college dropouts. But it should not surprise anyone that the major achievements in a field based on technological advancement are often created by people who studied technology at an advanced level.

Among those who do not have Ph.D.s or Master's degrees, many attended some grad school (usually meaning they finished an undergrad degree), and almost all attended some college. Even John Carmack attended some college, and he is maybe the best example alive of a hacker who created an entire industry with his mind simply by sitting in front of a personal computer and writing code nobody else could write.

That said, there is some truth to the notion that (college) dropouts succeed in the computing industry at a higher rate than in the general population.

As far as I can tell, most of the successful college dropouts quickly found something else to do that was unique and important at that moment. Based on this list, one sign that dropping out might be a good idea, rather than a copout, is if the thing you do instead requires much harder work than what your college classes require.

Also, I think it is worth observing that the people behind major technological advances tend to have advanced educations. By contrast, successful dropouts tend to be people who made their mark by designing and marketing commercial products using widely available technology, or with modest and incremental technological innovation.

There are a few anomalies: Carmack, Wozniak, and perhaps Pike (UPDATE: see comments) were supremely technical and don't have college degrees.[0] On the other hand, they are among the most brilliant hackers who ever lived. I think that, for a young hacker, betting that you are the next Carmack is an extreme long shot (although if you really believe that this possibility is substantiated by the evidence of your work quality, then go for it).

Why does this matter? Why did I write this? Mostly because when someone's wrong, it annoys me. But here are two other reasons.

First, people should be giving credit where credit is due. The vast majority of technological innovation in our field comes from people who participated, in some fashion, in the higher education system — in most cases, the elite part (broadly construed [1]) of the North American university system. The stuff you use on the Internet was emphatically not mostly created by people who "never got grades at all". Don't propagate this myth.

Second, it would be a mistake to generalize from the small minority of successful dropouts to the conclusion that a college education is not meaningful, and that skipping it would therefore be a good idea for you. Dropping out of college is a terrible idea for most people. I think it is probably a bad idea all the way up to, maybe, the top 2-3 percentiles of ability or motivation, and even for those people it is only a good idea in particular circumstances.

The past decade has seen outsized financial success accrue to a few consumer Internet businesses, like Facebook and Twitter, which were founded by dropouts. This has led to a certain current in our cultural imagination that substitutes a remote lottery-ticket shot at getting rich quick on a startup for the dream of broad-based prosperity based on equitable access to high-quality education, health care, and housing. Actually, both components are necessary. Big prizes do seem to drive risk-taking entrepreneurship. But the foundations of an innovative technological economy are built by people who mostly study hard, get good grades, and pursue advanced study in their field. The exceptions are just that — exceptions — and the sound way to get more innovation is to instill in more people the habit of studying hard, and to give more people the opportunity to pursue advanced education.

[0] Actually, it's not clear to me whether Rob Pike attended no college, or whether he did, and for characteristically eccentric reasons refuses to reveal it to the public. But until I find more information, I'm assuming he didn't. (UPDATE: If the anonymous comment below is to be believed, Pike went to Caltech, degree unspecified.)

[1] By "elite" here I mean roughly top-100-ranked four-year institutions. This may strike some readers as an overly broad class to label "elite", but the universe of higher education includes a much broader class still, including community colleges, professional and vocational schools, etc., and if you count heads in higher education then it is still a minority of students who go to top-100 4-year schools.