Recently read Soul of a New Machine which is a great read for any engineer, especially a Computer Engineer as the plot revolves around Data General’s battle to create a 16/32 bit hybrid computer in the late seventies.
One passage in particular stuck out to me, regarding a team member talking about their college experience:
It was an IBM Machine, archaic now but gaudy then. The university owned it, in effect, and it lay inside a room that none but the machine’s professional caretakers could enter during the day. But Alsing found that a student could just walk into that room at night and play with the computer. Alsing didn’t drink much and he never took any other drugs. “I was a midnight programmer,” he confessed…
…About ten other young undergraduates regularly attended these sessions of midnight programming. “It was a whole subculture. It’s been popularized now, but it was a secret cult in my days,” said Alsing. “The game of programming - and it is a game - was so fascinating. We’d stay up all night and experience it. It really is like a drug, I think.” A few of his fellow midnight programmers began to ignore their girlfriends and eventually lost them for the sake of playing with the machine all night. Some started sleeping days and missed all of their classes, thereby ruining their grades. Alsing and a few others flunked out of school.
As I read this - it was all too eerie and familiar. The allure of technology. When I first started undergrad, we didn’t have a computer in some obscure closet - but we did form our own nerd subcultures around certain projects and places. For the Computer Science students at the University of Arizona it was the Harvill Lab then later after Harvill was closed, the Gould-Simpson lab aka “GS228″ aka “The Human Fishtank”. The Human Fishtank was room that had been designed for big iron when the building was designed - air-conditioning coming out of the floors, and plexiglass walls for people to marvel at the latest room-filling mainframe industry had produced. Later when big iron fell out of style, they crammed the room full of cheap pcs and desks - and it was guaranteed that given any day of the year, any time of day (thanks to the 24 hour access), you could go in there, cut some code and find a person or two to talk shop with.
Or if you went over to the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering building after 5pm - there was an entirely different, yet similar subculture that came out of the woodwork after dark. The SAE kids would work all night on their Formula car, occasionally sleeping under tables or in their 3rd floor office. The asian grad students had apparently evolved to a state in which they required no sleep and would be hard at work advancing the state of the art in fluids or rocket design. There wasn’t more than a handful of rooms in the 9 floor building that were uninhabited or let alone had the lights off. I would generally be in the Aerial Robotics lab working on code for Machine Vision or AI for our UAV, or sometimes on the other side of the building actually wrenching on an aircraft with some fellow students. On a slight tangent, I think a defining moment in my life was the night I turned 21. Popular tradition in college, is on this special occasion for your friends to take you to a bar for the first time to get you monumentally drunk. I spent my last night being 20 in a laboratory prepping a UAV for a maiden flight that ended in a spectacular crash.
In one way or another, like a drug - each one of us Midnight Engineers paid for our addiction in one way or another. Just like the book says, some lost their grades, some also flunked out of school. Myself, I lost my girlfriend - this caused me in the months that followed to look deeply into what else I had lost in this pursuit. I was no longer playing music, I spent most of my time alone debugging programs and hardware, I had lost touch with many of the people who cared about me, I no longer had a girlfriend that loved me.
What was the point?
Was I an addict?
This realization made these engineering pursuits less and less gratifying, until I lacked all interest and figured that some serious reevaluation of my current life was in order. Within a week, I had dropped out of school and was packing my belongings to head back to the Midwest to sort my life out.
That was about a year and a half ago, and I think that in the time I’ve learned a lot about life. Dropping out of college was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.