One of the general sessions was given by Moira Gunn - she’s a former NASA scientist and now hosts Tech Nation. I didn’t take a lot of notes in this session, (battery must have been running out), but one of her anecdotes stuck in my mind - although with apologies to those concerned as I’ve probably gone some details wrong, but the general principles are right!
Whilst she was studying for one of her degrees, she was allowed to share an office, unlike other undergraduates, because she was already a graduate teacher. Also in her office was an undergraduate, Howard, and she couldn’t understand why he was allowed an office – when pressed he told her the story why.
It was in the days of the mainframe, and rooms full of teletypes where you input your code. Howard had worked out how to get into the kernel of the mainframe and thought he could shut it down and bring it back to life seconds later by typing in a time.
One day, in a very noisy room of teletypes, all clacking away, he watched the clock second hand coming up to 30 – he keyed in 35, and miraculously the room went silent as the machine stopped, and then at 35 seconds, it all started up again. Howard thought this was hilarious, and did it again, stopping the machine for a few seconds. Then he realised that maybe, someone in the computer room had spotted this, so he ought to leave – he gathered up his belongings and crept out, passing the Head of Computing and some technicians storming towards the room.
A week later he thought he’d try it again, and again it worked. Next time he thought he’d try for longer – watching as the clock second hand approached 50, he typed in 60 – the room went quiet, the clock second hand passed by the top, and nothing happened. Howard had forgotten than a second counter never goes to 60 – it goes from 59 to 00!
As he made to run out of the room – he was too late – there was the Head of Computing, with a number of other systems people blocking the door, pointing a finger at Howard, he shouted, trembling – “you, you, you’re hired!”
And that was the finale of her talk – Hire the Howards!
A philosophy I completely agree with. You can teach people technical skills - it's difficult to teach creativity, innovation, a different way of looking at things, and a desire to push things to the limit.
Howard did go on to make quite a name for himself by inventing something a lot of us use, but no-one knows him as Howard now – any guesses as to who he is?
A video of the session is here