What Makes You So Smart, Computer Programmer?

Noah Davis talks to computer whiz Andrew Kirmse about video game development, his time at Google, and his love of code.
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Noah Davis talks to computer whiz Andrew Kirmse about video game development, his time at Google, and his love of code.
(Photo: gamikun/Flickr)

(Photo: gamikun/Flickr)

Andrew Kirmse sold his first computer program before he graduated from high school and went on to develop Meridian 59, the first massive 3-D multi-player online game, with his brother after finishing college and moving back into his parents' basement. After a stint at LucasArts, he moved to Google where he worked on Maps, Earth, Latitude, and Now. Kirmse spoke with Pacific Standard about failing at 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 brothers and sisters did, too. My mom was an English major and then she got a master's degree in special education. She worked with deaf kids. My dad flunked out of engineering, which is ironic, and then went on to major in economics. He went back to get two master's degrees, including computer science long after I graduated. I think he got that from his kids.

I got very lucky in my schooling. I grew up in Northern Virginia, right outside of Washington, D.C. The Fairfax County schools are some of the best in the country. I went to Catholic school very early, which I hated. In third grade, I got into a gifted program. I did that through elementary and middle school. I had some really amazing teachers there. That was pretty important. I got super lucky for high school because the year before I was going to start, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology opened. That turned into the best high school in the country. I wonder if I hadn't gotten 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 smarter students?

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

Did the math and science come easy?

It did come easy but on the other hand I got into it and kept working. I got into harder and harder stuff. I did the math team and math contests because I really loved it. It wasn't just that it came easy. I didn't really hit the wall until the last national math contest in high school. When they went to pick the very best in the country, I wasn't quite good enough for that. When I got to college, I was doing proofs, which are a whole different thing. That's what math really is, problem solving, but I realized that I didn't like that as much.

You got into coding very early.

We got a home computer 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 been programming for eight or nine years before I even got to college. I sold a level editor for a video game I really like when I was 14.

When did computer science start to seem like it could become a career?

I didn't take computer science really seriously until late. In high school, I fell in love with physics. I thought I was going to be a physicist. When I went to MIT, I was a physics major. A few years in, having spent a lot of time with grad students in physics, I saw what their lives were like and how hard it was because it's such a small field. That was the first time that I thought about careers. I realized that while I like the subject, I wouldn't like it as a career. It was a little bit more work than the computer program. Computers were fun. Physics was fun, too, but it was also hard. At the last minute, I decided to get a computer science degree, too, and that was easy because I already knew the stuff. That led to a career by accident. Through video games I ended up doing computers.

Students with degrees in computer science are making huge money now right out of school. Has that changed the type of person who is interested in the discipline?

There's definitely a generation of people who grew up like I did, starting as kids on these very early home computers that were primitive. We did it for the love of it because that's what we enjoyed doing. We would have done it for free. Now it's more of a discipline. I'm not surprised that it's become a big deal because it was always obvious to me that computers were the future. What's a little bit different now is that because it's introduced earlier and because it's taught better, the people who are coming out of school are better prepared than we were. We were self-taught. They actually know what they are doing. The caliber of people is way better and the fact that people are in it as more of a career than a hobby is totally fine.

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

Because we started so early, it helped a lot to have him around. I was always naturally better because I was older but now that we have grown up, we're both pretty good at most things. I think I'm a little bit better at the mathematical side of things. My brother is a little bit more extroverted, so he was able to get along with people a little bit better. That has turned into having a bunch of start-ups. I was a little bit stronger on the engineering side. It's a pretty small difference. We're pretty similar. Instead of being outside and playing in the yard or watching cartoons, we were inside writing programs because we both loved it. That didn't seem weird to us.

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

I think my parents probably freaked out when after I got my master's degree, the first thing I did was move back into 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 had played them, but they didn't really get playing them over this "Internet thing." They didn't understand why it was new or a big deal. Now, of course, online games are everywhere. When I say that I work on Android, almost everyone knows what that is. It's dramatically different than 20 years ago.

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

[Laughs] Yeah, that's true. It could have been worse.

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

I've worked a bunch 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 back in 2003—is that there are smart people everywhere, but at Google the average is very, very high. I had worked at places where the few smart people were doing the majority of the work, and the other people were just hanging on. When I joined Google, they were hiring almost all Ph.D.s and I was the exception. I was not, and I am still not, anywhere near the smartest person there. I hear the same thing about HP in the early days or IBM way back when. Every 10 or 20 years you get a concentration of really smart people, and it's the place to be for awhile. Google was that place.

Is it still?

It's bigger. It's 70,000 people. When I started, there were maybe 500 engineers. Now there are 30,000. It can't be the same. There are still lots and lots of really smart people, but you're always going to look back at the early days and realize those won't be repeated on the Internet. They will be repeated in some other domain but not on the Internet.

What are you working on now?

I'm in between things, taking a little bit of time for some more personal projects. For all the Android projects that I have led, like Google Maps for mobile and Google Now, I have never written an Android program. I am writing a little hiking app for myself and probably 100 other people. I got to the point where I wasn't writing code anymore, and I really missed it. Working on a small thing where I'm writing code all the time, I am really enjoying it. I have been doing a lot of hiking also. I'm trying to climb to the highest point of every county in California. And I'm doing a research project with someone at Microsoft. There's another project I'm talking about doing. It's a time to take a little breath.

Who should I interview next?

Owen Thomas, who I gather has become a minor online celebrity. I went to school with him from third grade through high school, and he's probably the smartest all-around guy I've known. He was amazingly precocious at everything, especially math, but then chose a different path, which is interesting.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.