My Calling- To Grok

For Rick Schonfeld of the American Red Cross (and other random readers):

We were having a discussion about how we, the students in CRASAR, got into computer science and robotics. I said my reason was I had found my calling in CS in high school, and you asked what my calling was, specifically.

I said that it was system design- starting with a blank slate and a desired functionality and producing a working system. That’s a bit of a lie.

Designing systems is one of the things I enjoy, but developing a working system (something from nothing) isn’t quite why I like it. The actual reason is the understanding that comes with being a systems developer. I have a friend (and former coworker) that when asked how well he understood computers (part of a “what should be a students first language” debate) replied “I understand it down to the level of electrons moving… I stopped at why the electrons are moving, but above that I understand.”

Being a computer scientist teaches you how to think; it teaches you how to analyze a problem and how to come to a solution. Once you have a solution in mind, you learn to implement it. When you implement a solution, if you are worth your salt, you don’t just know how it works in vague and abstract terms, but rather you understand it. You grok it. You can watch it run and envision each individual component operating, running along at 2 billion operations per second (or merely 1 million depending on your platform). You can envision it flowing as one fluid entity, existing within its own reality.

Groking how something works is an amazing experience (similar to an ‘Ah ha!’ moment, but more awesome and less fleeting). Learning, understanding, and groking new and complex systems is why I am glad to be in Computer Science; and being exposed to new physical and electronic systems is why I am glad I am a Systems Developer.

It can also be quite terrifying. I designed and developed the software for a frac pump control system from scratch. I raised it from a wee tike that could barely blink LED’s to a system now deployed on million dollar industrial vehicles. I know that it works, and I grok it. But, every once in a while a problem comes up that doesn’t leave you wondering what happened, but rather exclaiming “That’s impossible.. that’s not how this works”. So far when I’ve run into these situations, it seems I’ve been right (odd mechanical or deployment issues), but each time your heart skips a few beats as you’re forced to question yourself, your understanding, and the basis of the reality your system is built around.

But, it is worth it.

Put a different way, a common joke is that real programmers use a magnetic pen to write data onto a hard disk. Somewhere out there are people who, given sufficiently steady hands and sufficiently small points to their pens, know enough about how a hard drive works that they could write data that way. There are people out there that, if you give them the raw electrical signals off your ethernet cable pairs, they can tell you what website you are surfing. These are those that grok.

Thanks to Rick for asking a question I probably should have known the answer to already.

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