Multiplayer games “really gave me the feeling of being socially connected when I was otherwise on my own at home”
My sense is that many people in our industry are fundamentally shaped by what tech meant for them as kids. Projecting from my own personal history? Sure. But it does lead me to ask peers about how they first encountered, and committed to, software. As a longtime Facebook engineering leader and now Meta’s new CTO, Andrew Bosworth has been at the center of many decisions Facebook/Meta made in the last decade, so I decided to ask him Five Questions.
Hunter Walk: For me, two formative moments with technology occurred pre-adulthood: Print Shop on the Mac and Alt.Net newsgroups. The combo convinced me that software was for creativity and community — 100% impacted the rest of my life. Do you have any “AHA!” memories of your own with regards to tech?
Andrew Bosworth: In two words: video games.
My parents got an Apple IIe when I was around 5 and a game called Rocky’s Boots which entailed chaining together logic gates to solve puzzles. The discovery of logic gates really changed the way I thought beyond just the game which is pretty profound for a five year old. I also liked Sticky Bears and Lode Runner.
In middle school we got a DOS PC and a friend from 4-H came over and introduced me to QBasic programming and we built a basic program where you could use the arrow keys to change the color of the cursor. It felt like magic. From there I could see how all the games I liked (Sim City in particular) were really engineering problems at different levels of scale.
Then in high school I started playing multiplayer games with my friends (Descent 2, mostly) which initially meant dragging them around and physically wiring them together and then eventually dialing in to each other’s modems directly. Combined with occasional prodigy usenet experience (I recall a few Star Trek MUDs) it really gave me the feeling of being socially connected when I was otherwise on my own at home. I was a very social kid (constantly on email/AIM or corded phone) who lived on ranch without many friends in walking distance so this was meaningful.
I do feel lucky to have been raised in Silicon Valley where it was clear to everyone that this was a very valid and potentially lucrative career choice. Within computer science, the thing I set out to study was artificial intelligence and the main reason for that was playing Metal Gear Solid at my friends house (I never had a console, just the PC and a gameboy), the first game I played where the “AI” (quite simple in retrospect) was a major factor of the gameplay. We spent more time making the guards follow us around by leaving clues than we did on the game sometimes.
HW: Did you collect anything as a child? I went through overlapping phases of baseball cards, comic books, old wrestling magazines, role playing games, paraphernalia and old books. You as big a nerd as me, or nah?
AB: Not seriously. While I enjoyed video games at home and did some RPGs with my cousins at holidays, I was an active kid and spent most of my time outdoors playing sports or just hiking around (I grew up in a rural area of the Bay). I had a half-assed Magic card collection and an even more limited baseball card collection. I lived in a rich area (my family was comfortable but nowhere near the same level) so the kids who were into those things had incredible collections I knew I could never match so it never seemed worth investing much. In fact I didn’t really collect anything seriously until my mid-30s when I started collecting camera lenses and I suppose now a little bit of art.
HW: You grew up out here but went east for college. Had you traveled much prior to that change? Did Boston work for you right away or was there an adjustment period? Is there an alternate future where Boz didn’t return to California?
AB: With only one exception (visiting my aunt and uncle in Hawaii) every vacation we took as a family was to pile into the car and get to the great outdoors. Every Easter break and summer we were camping or backpacking somewhere here in the American West, from Baja to Oregon and as far east as New Mexico. We did go up to Tahoe in the winter sometimes so I was plenty comfortable in the snow. I expected to go to a UC like everyone else in my family had but a few schools encouraged me to apply, hinting they might tag me as a football recruit. In the end, none of them did but I had already applied and then managed to actually get into Harvard (but not Yale or Stanford). I still almost went to UC San Diego but figured (correctly) I would probably spend the rest of my life in California so it would be good to branch out for a few years.
Boston was great and is an easy city to like with great public transit and good institutions. I really enjoyed my time there and it helped that my sister was already living there coaching rowing at Harvard. Still, there was never any chance I would stay on the east coast. I admit I also enjoyed the year and a half I lived in Seattle after I graduated but at some point I knew I would be back in the bay. My family has been here for five generations on each side, my loyalty runs deep.
HW: You proposed to your wife on the peak of Shasta after summiting the mountain together. My man, can you not make it hard on all of us who got engaged at sea level! How did you two originally meet?
AB: I was playing a pickup rugby game as an undergrad and injured my shoulder. University healthcare is awful so once they confirmed I wasn’t pregnant they proceeded to misdiagnose the injury for several years. It would dislocate quite often in my sleep which is an alarming experience to say the least. When I finally got a job with decent healthcare at Microsoft the first thing I did was go to a specialist who confirmed I needed surgery to repair a tear to my Superior Labrum.
After surgery I did my physical therapy at The Pro Club where I was randomly assigned as the patient of my future wife. I rolled in wearing all Harvard themed athletic gear (I didn’t own anything else!) and she rightly made fun of me for it. We ran into each other socially a few times at bars in Seattle but I feel compelled to note we didn’t date at all until after I had completed my treatments. Neither of us agrees on who initiated the relationship but it was her.
HW: One of my favorite episodes of This American Life is about superpowers, and one of the segments is John Hodgman asking folks whether they’d prefer the power of flight or the power of invisibility. So, Boz, I ask you: flight or invisibility?
AB: Flight. Invisibility can basically only be used for subterfuge as far as I can tell? That’s not my style. I’m comfortable not hearing conversations not intended for me. But I’m very impatient and travel consumes a huge amount of time so flight is a big win.