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Dennis Ritchie, High School Guidance Counselor

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As you may know, Dennis Ritchie died a few weeks ago. He was the creator of C and co-creator of Unix, and a true luminary in the world of computer science. I'll leave the eulogizing to others, but I must share a funny, little story about my own interaction with Dennis Ritchie. 

When I was 17 or 18 (think late 1990s), I really liked technology and writing code, but I wasn't sure if computer science was the right major for me. I was apprehensive because I'd had an internship that wasn't always a great experience. It sure seemed like I could use some advice from an expert on the matter, but I didn't know any experts. I had a flash of insight: hey, why not email somebody incredibly accomplished and see what they thought about my situation?

To this day, I have no idea why I chose Dennis Ritchie. There were roughly 500 million other programmers in the world who would've had more time to answer my my inane questions, but I chose him. I guess I assumed that language design, O/S internals, and career planning for high schoolers were all similar sorts of expertise. I got his email from his Bell Labs page, then I typed up a note on my predicament and sent it off to him.

Surprisingly, he answered! It wasn't some perfunctory response, either, it was actually quite encouraging. Unfortunately, the email disappeared into the ether long ago, but I can paraphrase what he said.

He said he was happy to offer me fatherly, no, probably more like grandfatherly advice (I recall that part distinctly). He said he himself didn't study cs as an undergraduate, and he didn't think it had limited his options. He went on to say that the field of software advances very quickly, but as long as you understood the fundamentals, you could do a lot of great work.

In retrospect, it was an incredibly nice gesture from an esteemed figure to a clearly deranged teenager. Thanks again, dmr.

Published at DZone with permission of Cody Powell, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


Tom Wheeler replied on Tue, 2011/11/15 - 12:03pm

That's a pretty cool story. 

Back when I was in high school, I thought it would be a pretty cool job to do special effects in the movies.  I had no idea how one got into that line of work, what kind of experience would be helpful or what to study in college.  Like you, I decided I'd try asking someone in the field. So I called directory assistance in California and got the phone number for Industrial Light and Magic. 

I managed to charm the receptionist and she put me through to one of the top guys (not George Lucas, but someone I'd heard of at the time).  His advice was that special effects would all be done on computers in a few years, just like graphic design already was.  Worked out pretty well, I'd say, since being a programmer was pretty high on my career list too.

Lindsay Gordon replied on Wed, 2011/11/16 - 4:04pm

Nice stories from both of you, thanks for sharing!

David Cameron replied on Mon, 2012/12/17 - 3:45pm

This is a very interesting situation you had in high-school, I am sure you will remember this situation for all your life. When my older son was in 11`th grade he had a conversation with Steve Jobs and after that he was very motivated to pursue his career path in the field of software, now he is learning at MIT and will graduate the next year.

Lily Marlene replied on Thu, 2013/01/17 - 8:57am

I had the opportunity to speak with Dennis Ritchie at a seminar, I will remember those moments all my life because he gave me some ideas that helped me in life. He told me that he always wanted to have a social justice degree but never had enough time, in that moment I understood that in life we must follow our dream and do whatever necessary to fulfill our goal.

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