What makes you so smart, a computer programmer?

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(Photo: gamikun / Flickr)

Andrew Kirmse sold his first computer program before graduating from high school and went on to develop Meridian 59, the first massive 3D multiplayer online game, with his brother after finishing college and returning to the sub -sol of his parents. After a stint at LucasArts, he joined Google where he worked on Maps, Earth, Latitude and Now. Kirmse spoke with Pacific Standard about failure in physics, hiking and why he missed coding.

What type of education did you have growing up? What about your parents?

Both of my parents went to college. I think all of their siblings too. My mother was a student of English, and then she got a master’s degree in special education. She has worked with deaf children. My dad missed engineering, which is ironic, then majored in economics. He went back there to get two masters, including computer science long after I graduated. I think he got that from his kids.

I was very lucky in my education. I grew up in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. The schools in Fairfax County are among the best in the country. I went to Catholic school very early, which I hated. In the third year, I entered a gifted program. I did this in elementary and middle school. I had some really amazing teachers there. It was quite important. I was very lucky in high school because the year before I started, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology opened. It has become the best high school in the country. I wonder if I hadn’t been so lucky there how things would have turned out. Then I went to MIT.

When you were at TJ, did you feel like you were one of the smartest students?

Everyone there was pretty smart. I was pretty good at math and science, not so good at other areas. I was near the top in math and science, but not at the top. There were amazing people there.

Are math and science easy?

It came easily, but on the other hand, I jumped in and kept working. I got into things that were getting harder and harder. I did the math team and the math contests because I really loved it. It wasn’t just because it was easy. I didn’t really hit the wall until the last national high school math competition. When they went to pick the best in the country, I wasn’t good enough at that. When I got to university I was doing tests, which is a whole different thing. That’s what math really is, problem solving, but I realized I didn’t like it that much.

You started coding very early on.

We had a computer at home when my brother was 10 and I was eight. We started writing games right away, very primitive stuff because we were just kids. I had programmed for eight or nine years before I even entered college. I sold a level editor for a video game that I really like when I was 14.

When did IT start to look like it could become a career?

I didn’t take IT really seriously until late. In high school, I fell in love with physics. I thought I was going to become a physicist. When I went to MIT, I was studying physics. A few years later, after spending a lot of time with graduate physics students, I saw what their life was like and how difficult it was because it’s such a small field. It was the first time I thought about careers. I realized that even though I like the subject, I wouldn’t like it as a career. It was a little more work than the computer program. Computers were fun. Physics was fun too, but it was also difficult. At the last minute, I decided to get a computer science degree too, and it was easy because I already knew the subject. This led to a career by accident. Thanks to video games, I ended up doing computer science.

Computer science graduate students earn huge amounts of money right out of school. Has this changed the type of person who is interested in the discipline?

There is certainly a generation of people who grew up like me, starting out as kids on those very first home computers that were primitive. We did it out of love because that’s what we loved to do. We would have done it for free. Now it’s more of a discipline. I’m not surprised this has become such a big deal as it has always been obvious to me that computers are the future. What is a little different now is that because it is introduced earlier and because it is taught better, the people who come out of school are better prepared than we are. We were self-taught. They really know what they are doing. The caliber of the people is much better and the fact that people make it more of a career than a hobby is quite good.

You had a close relationship with your brother and you both coded all the time. Did that push you? Were you better at things than him and vice versa?

Because we started so early, it helped a lot to have him around us. I’ve always been naturally better because I was older, but now that we’ve grown up we’re both pretty good at most things. I think I’m a little better on the math side of things. My brother is a bit more outgoing, so he got to get along with people a bit better. It turned into a bunch of start-ups. I was a little stronger on the engineering side. It’s a pretty small difference. We are quite similar. Instead of being outside and playing in the yard or watching cartoons, we were inside writing shows because we both liked it. It didn’t strike us as odd.

Is it easier to explain your job to people than it was 10 years ago?

I think my parents probably panicked when after graduating from my masters degree the first thing I did was go back to their basement so I could write a video game. I don’t think that’s what they had in mind. They knew what video games were because they played them, but they didn’t really start playing them on this “Internet thing.” They didn’t understand why it was new or so important. Now, of course, online games are everywhere. When I say I work on Android, almost everyone knows what it is. It’s radically different from 20 years ago.

I guess going home to program a video game is probably better than coming back to play one.

[Laughs] Yeah that’s right. It could have been worse.

When you moved to Google, did you find yourself surrounded by super smart people everywhere?

I’ve worked in a lot of different places before Google, and I’ve always worked with really, really smart people, but the difference between Google and other places, especially when I started in 2003, is that there are smart people everywhere, but at Google the average is very, very high. I had worked in places where the smart few people did most of the work, and the rest just hung on. When I joined Google, they were hiring almost all doctors and I was the exception. I wasn’t, and still am, far from the smartest person out there. I hear the same thing about HP in the beginning or IBM back then. Every 10 or 20 years you get a concentration of really smart people, and that’s the place to be for a while. Google was that place.

Is it still?

It’s bigger. It’s 70,000 people. When I started, there were maybe 500 engineers. There are now 30,000. It can’t be the same. There are still a lot, a lot of really smart people out there, but you’re always going to look back and find that it’s not going to happen again on the internet. They will be repeated in another domain but not on the Internet.

What are you working on now?

I’m in between, I take some time for more personal projects. For all of the Android projects I’ve done, like Google Maps for mobile and Google Now, I’ve never written an Android program. I’m writing a little hiking app for myself and probably 100 other people. I got to the point where I was no longer writing code, and I really missed it. Working on a little thing where I write code all the time, I really enjoy it. I also did a lot of hiking. I try to climb to the highest point in every county in California. And I’m doing a research project with someone at Microsoft. There is another project I am talking about. Now is the time to take a breather.

Who do I interview next?

Owen Thomas, whom I understand, has grown into a little celebrity online. I went to school with him from third grade through high school, and he’s probably the smartest guy I know. He was surprisingly precocious in everything, especially in math, but then took a different path, which is interesting.

What makes you so smart? is an ongoing question-and-answer series.


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