My Adventures in Software

It is a cliche to say that life is an adventure, but like many cliches, it is true. I suggest that to live life fully we should recognize and embrace the many adventures that life offers us.

I’ve been a software designer, builder, and manager for a long time. I wrote my first computer program (on the Univac 1103) in 1957 and have been an active programmer ever since. Since I am moving to a new career, mentoring, I have been thinking about all of the adventures in my professional life that led me to now. In this blog I’m going to talk about these adventures.

A friend of mine told me that the Chinese character for “adventure” is made up of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” Unfortunately, a brief bit of research on the Internet suggests that is not so. Too bad. I think that danger plus opportunity is a good definition.

Until recently I never thought of myself as an adventurer. Perhaps this is because I have no interest in putting myself in physical danger. Skydiving, climbing cliffs, exploring the shark-infested Amazon hold no appeal. Now I realize that I have had lots of adventures. The “danger” part is not necessarily physical danger. It often is the frightening uncertainty of stepping into the unknown.

My adventures fall into four categories:
● Events that I saw at the time as adventures. There were not many of these.
● Events that I only recognized as adventures after the fact. These were the vast majority of my adventures.
● Events that were thrust upon me, not of my choosing. Some of these I value only in retrospect.
● Other people’s adventures that profoundly influenced my life.

The first of these adventures, which happened when I was just 10 years old, was someone else’s adventure that profoundly influenced my choice of career. In 1948, I was living in Charlottesville, VA, where my father taught at the University of Virginia. I was, and had been for some time, fascinated by machines of all sorts. Our next door neighbor, John Wyllie, the head librarian at U.Va., served in the signal corps in WWII. There, or perhaps before, he learned about electricity, electronics, and radio. He offered to teach me about electricity. He taught me about electrical circuits and Ohm’s Law (the basic equation of electrical circuits). I loved learning this. He also tried to teach me the basics of electromagnetic radiation, but that was beyond me. (Ironically, when much later I took the Ph.D. qualifying exams at M.I.T., the only part of the exams that I failed was electromagnetic theory.)

I believe that learning about electricity from Mr. Wyllie is what focused my interest in machines onto electrical machines. The progression from electricity to electronics to logic design to computers to software to UNIX seemed to follow automatically. I’ll talk about all of this in subsequent posts to this blog. Teaching me about electricity was an adventure for Mr. Wyllie. I don’t think he had ever done such a thing before. He never knew how important it was in my life.

I feel fortunate to have been involved with computers since they were in their infancy. Back when I was writing a program for the Univac 1103 neither I nor anyone else could have imagined my smartphone with thousands of times more computing capacity than that early machine. This blog will chronicle a number of adventures (and other events) that were important in my professional life. I’ll discuss them in chronological order, so the next few posts will be about events that led to my career in software, followed by a number of posts about my experiences at Bell Labs and then as an entrepreneur.

Looking back, I see the events of my career, and many other events in my life, as adventures. At the time they just seemed like the sensible thing to do. I wish, now, that I had approached them with the sense of adventure that I now see in them. So, my wish for you is that you consciously embrace your life as a set of adventures. Live adventurously!

– Rudd Canaday (

    – Next post: Reluctant Adventurer

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