Hi! I'm Adam Gordon Bell

Be Like Ken

Published 11 months ago • 4 min read

Be Like Ken

Hello, CoRecursive newsletter subscriber!

April is here! March has been a challenging month for me. My dad is in the hospital, and I'm heading out on a road trip to visit him shortly.

Some months are tougher than others.

Doug Crockford

But Episode 087 of the podcast is out, and it's an interview with Doug Crockford — the creator of JSON, the finder of the good parts of Javascript, and so much more.

Doug has a great story to share about all that happened, and it's a review of the peak Javascript parts of his career and of the evolution of web dev in general. I'm lucky to sit with someone who's had such an impactful career. Doug's a pioneer of JavaScript development.

Side Projects

I recently heard another pioneer talk, Ken Thompson – Unix, Unicode, Go creator – at the SCALE conference. In my most recent bonus episode, I spoke about his talk ( hint hint). It was such a fantastic talk that I thought about it for days afterward.

But then I got mad.

Some people at the conference didn't appreciate the talk: "It's a technically oriented, open source, Linux conference and he's talking about basically his home stereo." Then it got covered in The Register and then showed up on hacker news, and instead of the actual speech he gave, they talked about how he was a MacOS user and was switching away from it. The focus was some dumb question he got asked at the end of the talk that wasn't even related to the talk. I took my ire to hacker news with the following :

  • I was at the talk, and it's strange this what people take from it. You should watch the whole thing and see what he built over years.
  • I was a bit disappointed that most of the questions ignored his talk about a very cool jukebox he built and focused on OS drama.
  • He built a jukebox with all hit songs he could find in it 1900-2000 and for prerecorded music, got a player piano and sheet music and midi and integrated the whole thing. Touch screens, voice activation and so on. It's a huge hardware and software and data hoarding project.
  • He has massive cabinets of CDs, all the music he ripped and tested audio encoders with his own ears.
  • Ken is 80, and still building cool side projects and scratching his own itch! That's the story.
  • Be like Ken by building something cool, not by using whatever OS he does.

This comment became my most popular comment on hacker news of all time, and ultimately the submission's title was edited to reflect my point.

So if you're out there, Ken, I sent you an email and would like to talk to you about this project. It's a cool project!

Being Mad

But really, this thing fired me up because building stuff for fun is so important. Some people are passionate about compensation and where the best places to work are. There are places where people talk about the best way to get a promotion, do agile, or whatever.

I never really cared about that stuff.

Certainly, in the first half of my career, I did not work anywhere that was amazingly cutting-edge or well-regarded.

My strength has always been side projects and following some strange passion in whatever direction it takes me. The life-affirming power of the side project is something I believe in. There is a thing where people say: 'well, not everybody can have a side project, not everybody has a life that supports that'. People have other things going on. And believe me – especially this month of my life – I get that.

But – BUT! – here is the thing.

Side projects – just building something you care about and then maybe throwing it away or moving on to the next thing – are super important. They've been so defining in my career. They've been my thing.

And it doesn't need to be code. It just needs to be something that feels like building something. If I can grab hold of that feeling I had as a kid with lego when I was really into it, well, that is something special.

I have spent so much time in the last year or so tinkering with the podcast format and learning how to present stories cohesively, and it does scratch some of that same creator itch as coding can.

And I assume it's the same with Ken, where he started on this data hoarding music project, and it just grew and grew, and he couldn't shake it off, but also he didn't want to because of the fun.

The feeling where you are working on a complex project, and you have to keep a lot of things in your head and slowly the other problems of life get pushed out of your head because there's just no room. Just then, if you're me, working on a side project, then in that moment, you have no worries.

And when you've had a month like I've had, sometimes that is what you need.

The new episode is here , and Ken's talk is here .




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