A handful of memoirs and autobiographies for computer science

Since I published my second book, that memoir on a scenic route into computer science, several people have asked me “why?” and “what makes yours stand out from the crowd?”. The answer to the latter is easy: there is no crowd. (The brief answer to ‘why’ is mentioned in the Introduction chapter). Let me elaborate a little.

In the early stage of writing the book, I dutifully did do my market research to answer the typical starter questions like: What books in your genre or on your topic are already out there? How crowded is the field? Will your prospective book be just another one on that pile? Will it stand out as different? And if so, is that an interesting difference to at least some readership segment so that it will have potential to be sold beyond a close circle of friends and family? So, I searched and searched and searched, in late 2020 and again twice in 2021, and even now when writing this post. Memoirs by female computer scientists, by male computer scientists, whatever gender computer scientist in academia. Autobiographies as well then. I stretched the search criteria further, into the not-in-their-own-words biographies of computer science professors.

Collage made with the respective covers or first page of the memoir and autobiography books listed and linked here.

If you take your time searching for those books, you should be able to find the following four books and booklets of the memoir or autobiography variety, by computer science professors, on computing, computing milieux, or computer science:

  • James Morris’ memoir that was published in the same week as mine was in late 2021. It covers his 60 years career in computer science and, according to the book’s tweet-size blurb “is a search for intelligence across multiple facets of the human condition—religion and science, evolution, and innovation”.
  • The early years of academic computing professional memoir by Kenneth King made available in 2014 (free pdf).
  • The unpublished memoir by Ray Miller, on 50 years in computing (1953-1993), online available from the IEEE Computer Society as part of its computer history museum.
  • Maurice Wilkes’ hardcopy autobiography from 1985 that is, consequently, hard to access.

That’s all. Four retired (and some meanwhile deceased) computer science professors telling their tale, three of which cover only the early days of computing.

Collage made with the covers or first page of the quite related memoir and autobiography books listed and linked here.

There are a few very recent memoirs by professors that were in print or announced to go in print soon, on attendant topics, notably:

What there are lots of, are books about, and occasionally by, ‘celebrity’ people in IT and computing who made it in industry these days, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Satya Nadella, and Sheryl Sandberg, and famous people in computing history, such as Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, George Boole, and Alan Turing (also about, not by). And there are short and long memoirs about tech by journalists and writers and by engineers and programmers who write, such as on Linux in Australia (here) or 10 years in Silicon Valley (here). There are also a few professional memoir essays and articles by computer science professors, such as about the development of the network time protocol by David Mills (here).

The people ‘out there’ – outside of the ivory tower of academia – do have lots of assumptions about computer science professors. When I mention to them that, yes, I’m one of those, at UCT even, a not uncommon reaction is an involuntary reflex of apprehension. The eyes move to a corner of the eye socket, the head turns a little and moves back, and the upper body follows, even if only slightly. I notice. But what do you really know about us? Nothing, really.

Even among academics in computer science, we have only sketchy information about our colleagues’ respective backgrounds. Yes there are the privileged ones, who had early access to computers, tinkered with them in their spare time, got their pizza delivered, participated in programming contests and so on. But there are others who made it. Who escaped persecution in Eastern Europe during the Cold War and had to find their way in a different country, whose first interaction with a computer was only at university, or who grew up in some hamlet with limited electricity and potable water. Who came from a broken home, or who had to leave family and friends to get that elusive job in the scarce academic job market many kilometers away, or whose relations stranded due to the two-body problem (partner who is also an academic, but in a different city or country). Who made it against the odds. And there are those who defected from physics, or who took a stroll out of philosophy to never return, or who still flip-flop with chemistry, to name but a few, and who thus have at least two specialisations under their belt. Those who know about more stuff than just computing.

That’s just about an academic’s background. What do you know of our daily activities? Nothing really, either. Assumptions abound; there are about as many memes and jokes about our jobs as assumption. And movies, TV series, and fiction novels that aren’t necessarily depicting it accurately either.

But us, in our own words? The memoir and autobiography books literally can be counted on one hand. I can assure you it’s not because we have no life and have nothing to say. We do. For instance, it takes about 10-30 years before the theories and techniques we investigate will mature enough to seep into the wider society. Impactful, cool, and fun things happen along the way. Those ‘infoboxes’ from Google when it returns the search results? The theory and techniques behind it date back to the late 1990s with ontologies and I was a part of that. Toy drones? There was one to play with at the European Conference on Artificial Intelligence 2006 (ECAI’06) that I attended, when the first small toy drones needed to be equipped with ‘intelligent’ processing of sensor data. The drone demo area was suitably demarcated with red-white coloured tape, for neither the engineers nor the organisers, nor us as attendees, were convinced it was safe to make it fly around without causing trouble.

Screengrab of “Dr Fill” in action in last year’s crossword puzzle contest: Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIjD-sIDCeE

The demo session at ECAI’06 also had a crossword puzzle contest with WebCrow: researchers against an algorithm that trawled the Web for answers. The 25 of us onsite participants – perhaps the first ever to participate in such a contest – sat on uncomfortable plastic chairs in cinema style in a section of a large hall in the conference venue at Riva del Garda in Italy. Onlookers marveled that the event really took place, and unsure about which horse to bet on. The algorithm won, but we had fun. Last year’s news that an algorithmic solver won from expert human puzzlers seems a bit late and old news. I can very well imagine what those human participants must have felt.

Maybe you don’t care about computer science professors or about early days of new theories and techniques and how they came about. We all have our interests and time is limited. That’s fine; I don’t read all books either. But, if you were to ever wonder about the human in the computer science academic, there are, for now, those four books listed above, mine, and the other three books that are quite nearby in scope. Happy reading!