Engineering Emotional Experiences for the Next Generation

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4 min read

With a few glasses of wine in me and some nostalgia-fueled synthwave playing, I found myself reflecting on my past, and my history with computers. I got to thinking of my childhood, and more specifically, my personal history with computers.

I love technology and the promise of what it can do for humanity. In our current moment of fearing that our jobs will all be erased in the blink of an eye by generative AI, and that the world will end in a decade or two due to whatever existential threat pundits claim will wipe us out, I still love technology. I love the promise of the possibilities that technology and software unlocks. I love the unbridled innovation that the anguished efforts of hard-working engineers brings us. But amidst arguing about software best-practices and which framework or programming language is best, I reflected on a simpler time in my life (perhaps everyone's life, when viewed through a certain wistful set of rose-colored glasses). I remembered a time when tech wasn't just about making a buck, about us sacrificing ourselves to ostensibly "make the world a better place" but about having fun, and about feeling something.

When I reflect on my life in the 1990s and my introduction and early fascination with computers at that time, it wasn't about any of that. It wasn't like I had some obligation to crack open a two-inch thick software manual and learn the nuances of MS-DOS because I wanted to increase my salary; I was a nerdy 10-year-old kid who just thought it was freaking cool. I just wanted to figure out whatever I had to so that I could play video games and get them working on my primitive 386 PC, with all 256 colours of chunky pixels and PC speaker bleeps and bloops that PCs of that era could muster.

I loved playing video games back then, and I'm sure that's a path that many people took that ultimately led to them embarking on a career in technology. But when I really think deeply about it all, it's just that there was a certain feeling that I had. The feeling that an exciting revolution was a moment away. We could be entertained, we could be captivated, and it seemed like something big was happening. We'd read magazines showing us that the next revolution in technology was afoot, and, in hindsight, they weren't wrong. It was amazing—year after year, we'd see huge jumps in what computers could do. One year we'd have PC speaker beeps, the next we'd have pulse-code-modulated audio with CD-quality sound. We'd double the resolution of computers, get Windows 95 bringing a full-blown GUI to all our software, be able to download any song we wanted as MP3 files on Napster, and we'd see huge increases in the amount of RAM and the complexity of software from one month to the next.

In a sense, this is all still true today, and I love following the rapid advancement of technology just as much as any geek, but sometimes I wonder if, growing up, getting into the tech industry, and becoming a "professional", I've lost that sense of wonder and that incredibly feeling of discovery that I had as a child that kept me intrigued and fascinated and that made me want to learn how to code. The passion that led me to spend hours writing custom versions of autoexec.bat and config.sys for boot disks as a kid who could barely even type, let alone program a computer.

Over the course of my career as a developer, I've spent weeks of 12-hour days coding to build software that helps employees get their work done, and I loved that stuff — I love making tools that help people become productive, and love how computers can enable that stuff. And the thought occurred to me that, while there's nothing wrong with any of that, what if we just put some of that passion and effort into creating something that makes people feel. As much as shaving a few minutes of people's day-to-day work is a noble cause, maybe software can make people feel a certain way that is kind of amazing. Just make an experience that is cool to watch, engages people, captivates minds, and inspires them to want to dive into a whole other world just because it is intriguing and cool.

I think a lot about how I could take my personal projects to that level; not just by making something that is well-engineered, and that follows best practice. Not just something that uses the programming language du jour... but something that is an experience that creates a feeling of amazement and a sense of wonder in the next generation of engineers and leaders and creators who will craft the future of this world.