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Bubble Boys

Joseph Huang (WiFiSlam) and Ivan Lee (Geomon).  

Everyone here has a project. Two students are working on Habut, a web ­service that helps you create good habits by sending you periodic reminders (e.g., “Go outside”). Another student is starting a Q&A site for medical topics. A pair of undergrads, Dan Thompson and Grant Mathews, are working on StanfordHub, a discussion forum pegged to the student-government elections. “This guy is a total frickin’ genius,” says Thompson, nodding at Mathews. Mathews doesn’t react.

Thompson, a chatty, Bieber-haired then-sophomore, came to Stanford from the aggressively traditional St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, planning to study psychology. “I got into CS because here it’s cool,” he says. When you understand the pleasure of hacking—the application of creativity and problem-solving—spending a Saturday night writing code doesn’t seem that crazy.

Pleasure comes with pain. You code for hours, you run the program, it fails, you debug it, run it again, pass out on your keyboard, wake up, code some more. But when it finally works, it’s a rush. Thompson, who has dabbled with cocaine in the past, compares it to the drug. “Writing code to me is the same experience,” he says. “It’s misery, misery, misery, misery, euphoria.”

Hackers don’t always sit down at their computers with a goal, says Feross: “They just want to see what they can make a computer do, even if no one uses what you build.” For him, tinkering started at an early age. Whenever his dad brought home anything requiring assembly, ­Feross would put it together. Reading the manuals gave him power over his parents. When his mother grounded him, he’d get revenge by setting the child lock on the microwave. When he got his first computer, driven by an old Intel 386, he installed a bunch of viruses and then fixed it himself. He started programming in middle school and created an AP-study-notes website that still gets 10,000 hits a day. “My dad called me Computer Guy, and he called my brother Sports Guy,” says ­Feross. “I hated that. I wanted to be Sports Guy too.” Feross plays club basketball now—at six-foot-five, how can he not?—but he’s come to terms with his skill set. “Now I’m proud to say I’m a computer nerd.”

When I met Feross at his Stanford dorm, his lanky frame was draped in a Facebook T-shirt. It was almost like the company had called dibs on him. Last summer, Feross interned at Facebook, where he worked on a small team that was rebuilding the Facebook Groups application. As the launch date approached, Mark Zuckerberg started working out of the team’s office.

Zuckerberg doesn’t code much for Facebook anymore, the same way that Steve Jobs never hand-coded software for the iPhone. But, as the Groups team was adding the finishing touches to its product, Zuckerberg said he wanted to write a few lines. “Everybody was like, Ohhhh, Zuck’s gonna write code,” says Feross. Someone set up an easy bug for him to fix—adding a link to a picture, or something—and he went to work. Five minutes passed. Twenty minutes. An hour. “It took him like two hours to do something that would take one of us who’s an engineer like five minutes,” says Feross. It was like a retired slugger coming back for one last at-bat, for old time’s sake, and finding he’d lost more of his game than he’d reckoned. Still, he got props from Feross & Co. for getting his hands dirty.

It’s moments like these that growing tech companies struggle to hang on to. When Zuckerberg gets in the trenches with the grunts, it sends a message: Program­ming is the core of their world. Coding isn’t about making money or scratching some OCD itch. It’s about doing what you love and, yes, changing the world. Engineers shopping their talents talk about impact; they say they want to work wherever their contribution will make the most people happiest. You can have the best day of your life working at a big firm like Yahoo, and you still won’t affect the company’s value. At a small company, you can triple it.

The result is that in order to recruit young talent, companies try to seem smaller while getting bigger. In January, when Google announced that Larry Page would step in as CEO of Google in April, the move was sold as a return to the company’s start-up roots. Since then, every­thing has been squeezed into this narrative, from prioritizing mobile to tying the size of bonuses to success in social-media efforts to the campus workshop where Googlers can build stuff out of wood or metal or Legos. Google also seduces free spirits by famously letting employees spend 20 percent of their time on projects they are passionate about—some of which turn into major Google products, such as Google News and Gmail.