in Algorithms, programming

an afternoon with Don Knuth

It’s not often you get the chance to spend an afternoon with probably the most famous hacker/developer/computer scientist the world has ever seen. However, last week I got the chance to do just that when myself and three colleagues had the great fortune to spend some time with Don Knuth.

For the uninformed IT “professionals” that have never heard of Don Knuth this is the guy that brought to us the idea of analysis of algorithms and asymptotic notation (big-O notation), the Knuth-Morris-Pratt string searching algorithm, the Art of Computer Programming book series, the list goes on. However, he is not only an “algorithm’s guy”, he also developed the Tex typesetting system and the METAFONT language used to define vector fonts. So basically he is the most famous computing guy out there.

Knuth is a surprisingly easy guy to talk to. Sure, he can really lose you pretty quickly in a conversation, but he also has some great insights.

Our conversations tended to centre around stuff to do with algorithms. His next volume of the Art of Computer Programming will likely focus on constraint satisfaction problems and satisfiability problems – the former being something I worked on myself in the not to distant past. I asked what he thought was a good algorithm to teach people and he said he thought the biparite graph matching algorithm was a nice one in terms of beauty (he did mention another which escapes me now). Not everyone will find the algorithms stuff that interesting (you should!) but his view of beauty is maybe something more universal.

He also expressed a love for writing code, he said that when he gets up in the morning he thinks about writing code and misses it on days when he doesn’t get the chance. That is pretty cool by me and sits in stark contrast to many academics. I got the feeling that he wasn’t too keen on the “apps” developers as he called them. My guess is that his thoughts lie with more meaningful problems than fart apps – however people download them so who are we to say. Still, there was definitely some lamenting going on about the fact that people use software without ever trying to understand what the software is actually doing. That is, have at least a high-level view of the data structures and algorithms used that make the said piece of software useful. Having this kind of understanding allows you to select the right tools for the job. In my experience people that tend to have this knowledge and understanding are far better developers and is likely why Google, Microsoft, Facebook et al. try to attract developers with this kind of knowledge.

He was telling us that he watched The Social Network on the way over on the plane. He said he thought it was great how Mark Zuckerberg was also someone who just liked building stuff like him – this was something Zuckerberg said himself at Startup School 2010. What is even cooler is Mark Zuckerberg actually sent him a copy of the latest Art of Computer Programming book and asked him if he would sign it for him.

So Don Knuth himself will have long forgotten who I am but at least I will be able to recollect years down the line this encounter with a computing genius.

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