February 2014

Volume 29 Number 2

Don't Get Me Started : Jose, Can You C?

David Platt | February 2014

David PlattTo start my fifth year in this space, I want to tell you about a student who came to Boston for one of my classes. He lives in Miami and I doubt it violates his privacy to tell you that his name is Jose. Over drinks at the Harvard Faculty Club (see msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/dn532211), I asked him how he’d come to the United States. “From Cuba. On a raft. And now here I am at Harvard having drinks with the software legend.”

I was (uncharacteristically, you must admit) speechless. But another student of mine, who left Cuba as an infant on a plane to Spain, summed up Jose’s journey well: “That took cojones.”

America has always been a refuge for immigrants. It holds an allure and offers a welcome like nowhere else, especially in technological fields. Think of all the scientists and engineers we’ve welcomed from abroad, and how they’ve enriched our country and the world: Bell. Fermi. Einstein. Tesla. Von Neumann.

Andy Grove, another immigrant, writes: “By the time I was 20, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazi ‘Final Solution,’ the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army, a period of chaotic democracy in the years immediately after the war, a variety of repressive Communist regimes, and a popular uprising that was put down at gunpoint.” (Busy guy, no?) Grove escaped to the United States in 1957 and co-founded Intel in 1968.

Sometimes our global welcome generates profound ironies. While welcoming Grove, we also welcomed a prime representative of his persecutors: rocket scientist Werner von Braun, member of the Nazi party and the SS. His 1960 biographical movie carried the title, “I Aim at the Stars.” Cynics suggested a subtitle: “… But Sometimes I Hit London.” Or as Tom Lehrer sang: “Don’t say that he’s hypocritical / Say rather that he’s apolitical. / ‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? / That’s not my department,’ says Werner von Braun.” (You can listen here: bit.ly/1lJpABs.) We overlooked von Braun’s past; he built us a moon rocket. Good trade? Bad trade?

Immigrants drive our technological leadership today as well. Think of Sergey Brin from Russia, co-founder of Google. Or Jerry Yang from Taipei, co-founder of Yahoo (although based on the performance of Yahoo lately, maybe we shouldn’t count him.)

And it’s not just the Nobel-caliber immigrants that enrich our lives. Just think of really smart geeks here in the Windows community: Juval Lowy. Anders Hejlsberg. I’m sure you know plenty yourself.

Immigrants bring us an energy, a zest, that we can’t easily duplicate in-house. Having the chutzpah to leave your known world behind for something you hope is better requires enormous levels of drive and competence. Think of Jose building his raft and shoving off into the Florida Straits, and the courage that must have required. The Miami Herald in December reported that one person died and two others went missing attempting the very same feat Jose managed so many years ago.

Immigrants appreciate what we have here, things that we natives take for granted. They don’t sweat small stuff, such as shopkeepers saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Most of them fled bad governments, usually of a collectivist or totalitarian bent. They especially admire the U.S. Constitution’s limits on government. They’re quick to smell a rat and sound the alarm when they see it being violated.

So I say let them in. Throw open the doors to the serious geeks. Maybe we could hold programming contests every year and take the top 1,000 entries. Maybe the top 10 teams at the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition should be offered green cards. (See my October 2011 column at msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/hh456410.) Maybe anyone who earned a Ph.D. in a STEM field could stay here after school, and if they kept their noses clean for 5 years could make that status permanent. You can probably think of other criteria that would work. This idea is so obvious and sensible, though, that it has no chance whatsoever of becoming government policy.

“My sons are born here, Americans for life,” said Jose. “They’ll never have to do what I did.”

May we forever continue to be a refuge for immigrants. They want our freedom and opportunity. We need their brains. And we need their cojones, too.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.