I’m Old, Part XXXIV: The Importance of Play

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that I’ve been very lucky with contacts and connections throughout my career. One summer in college, I managed to get a job at Bell Communications research writing code for an experimental phone services system (more on that some day). A year later, I took a year off college and picked up a job in the same building, but a different department.

At the time, there was a shortage of space, but Mike Lesk (creator of lex, uucp and many other foundations of UNIX and the internet) was on a sabbatical and I got a seat in his office along with Dave Ackley and Karen Lochbaum. My big project was porting the MGR window system from SunOS to the Macintosh. Since I knew MGR pretty well, I also served as a helper for people in the department who were trying to get specific tasks done. For example, I figured out a way to get Hinton diagrams displayed as optimally as possible, which was getting used by some people working on speech recognition.

I learned a great deal about C, portability, coding style, and so on. I think one of the things that I learned about research and research coding was the importance of play. There were a lot of very creative people in the department and besides being very hard-working, many of them played at work. I believe there is an important connection between play and creative work, and while a lot of software engineering is drudgery, the important bits and the breakthroughs are the result of creativity. You can’t just tell people “BE MORE INNOVATIVE”and expect it to happen. By playing, you take the spinning gears and shove them into the background to churn away on their own.

Dave Ackley was tremendously creative and tremendously playful (I’m sure he still is, but I haven’t seen him in years). At the time, he was doing research on neural networks and was exploring the capabilities of neural network based systems. Dave frequently got a sandwich and a soda from the cafeteria for lunch and brought them back to his desk. If you got a sandwich, it came cut in half with two toothpicks each with colored cellophane ribbons, or as Dave liked to see it: a dart with fletching. After eating his sandwich and drinking his soda, Dave took the straw out of his drink, loaded up a toothpick dart, leaned back in his chair and blew the dart, shooting it up into the ceiling above his desk. It wasn’t long before he had a tiny forest of darts in the acoustic tile above his desk.

During my time there, I had managed to save some money and decided to take a vacation to the west coast with a friend of mine (which is it’s own story). I brought back gifts for people at work. For Dave, I brought back a toy “laser” gun that made noise and shot sparks. In short order, Dave set to trying to find out everything you could do with the toy, including shooting in in his mouth and the monitor to the Sun workstation on his desk. Disappointed that it didn’t affect it, he contented himself with shooting it at various things on his desk.

Play is important. If you want a successful engineering group, encourage play. It makes the environment more pleasant, makes your corporate culture engaging, and results in better creative work.

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