On April 9, at a remote launchpad on the plains of Kazakhstan, a ground controller will finish his countdown; a Soyuz rocket will fire; and Charles Simonyi–Microsoft’s former chief architect, the tutelary genius behind its most famous applications, the inventor of the method of writing code that the company’s programmers have used for 25 years, and now the proponent of an ambitious project to reprogram software–will begin his ascent into space.
Snug in a Russian space suit, feeling four Gs pressing him down into a form-fitting molded seat liner, the 58-year-old billionaire will become the fifth space tourist to visit the International Space Station. The journey, which will cost Simonyi around $20 million, will fulfill his dream of becoming a “nerd in space” (to borrow one name he chose for the website that documents his extraterrestrial adventure: www.nerdinspace.com). It will also give him an opportunity to view our planet from above and beyond.
This has always been Simonyi’s preferred vantage. In a career spanning four decades, every time he has confronted some intractable problem in software or life, he has tried to solve it by stepping outside or above it. He even has a name for his favorite gambit: he calls it “going meta.” In his youth in 1960s Hungary, he learned the basics of computing on an antiquated Soviet mainframe powered by vacuum tubes, then engineered his own escape to the West. In the 1970s, at Xerox’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), as part of the team that invented personal computing, Simonyi wrote the first modern application: a word processor that banished the complex codes then used to tag text and displayed a document as it would look on paper. Whether in his Stanford University doctoral dissertation on a “meta-programming” approach to boosting programmer productivity, his career at Microsoft organizing legions of software developers and teaching them how to structure their code, or his planned voyage into Earth orbit this spring, moving beyond established ways of doing things has always been Simonyi’s method. Now he is plotting what he hopes will be his most vaulting meta-move of all. Simonyi believes he can solve a host of stubborn problems that have always plagued computers by offering everyone who uses them, and the coders who program them, a higher-order view of software.
Bill Gates calls Simonyi “one of the great programmers of all time.” Indeed, Simonyi is arguably the most successful coder in the world, measured in terms of financial reward and the number of people who use his creations. (Other celebrated programmer-billionaires, such as Larry Ellison and Bill Gates himself, made their money and names founding and managing technology ventures.) Simonyi could easily choose to spend the rest of his life endowing philanthropic ventures, flying planes, or cruising in his yacht. Instead, he says, he is “programming probably harder than ever before.” He is obsessed with a project that he has pursued for a decade and a half, and that four years ago carried him right out of Microsoft’s doors. He is proud of his profession. But he is also haunted by the thought of what programmers must contend with each time they sit down to code. He asks, Why is it so hard to create good software?