Dennis Ritchie, High School Guidance Counselor

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As you may know, Dennis Ritchie died last week. He was the creator of C and co-creator of Unix, and a true luminary in the world of computer science. I'll leave the eulogizing to others, but I must share a funny, little story about my own interaction with Dennis Ritchie.

When I was 17 or 18 (think late 1990s), I really liked technology and writing code, but I wasn't sure if computer science was the right major for me. I was apprehensive because I'd had an internship that wasn't always a great experience. It sure seemed like I could use some advice from an expert on the matter, but I didn't know any experts. I had a flash of insight: hey, why not email somebody incredibly accomplished and see what they thought about my situation?

To this day, I have no idea why I chose Dennis Ritchie. There were roughly 500 million other programmers in the world who would've had more time to answer my my inane questions, but I chose him. I guess I assumed that language design, O/S internals, and career planning for high schoolers were all similar sorts of expertise. I got his email from his Bell Labs page, then I typed up a note on my predicament and sent it off to him.

Surprisingly, he answered! It wasn't some perfunctory response, either, it was actually quite encouraging. Unfortunately, the email disappeared into the ether long ago, but I can paraphrase what he said.

He said he was happy to offer me fatherly, no, probably more like grandfatherly advice (I recall that part distinctly). He said he himself didn't study cs as an undergraduate, and he didn't think it had limited his options. He went on to say that the field of software advances very quickly, but as long as you understood the fundamentals, you could do a lot of great work.

In retrospect, it was an incredibly nice gesture from an esteemed figure to a clearly deranged teenager. Thanks again, dmr.

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About the Author

The Art of Delightful Software is written by Cody Powell. I'm currently Director of Engineering at TUNE here in Seattle. Before that, I worked on Amazon Video. Before that, I was CTO at Famigo, a venture-funded startup that helped families find and manage mobile content.

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