I’m talking, of course, about those cute little bits of code developers hide away inside their creations to give expression to the anarchic side of their nature. That’s what I reckon makes them do it, anyway. I’m convinced that the typical developer is a highly creative individual who, as almost happened to me, stumbles into programming with some vague notion that it will give them an outlet for their love of logic assembled in poetic forms. Little do they know.
I had that sort of airy-fairy view of programming when I applied for a course at Auckland Technical Institute (as it then was) about 20 years ago. I passed the aptitude test, was accepted for the course and put my name down on a list for a scholarship (offered by Paxus, if my memory serves me right). During the scholarship interview I suddenly woke up to what I was getting myself into; that programming was actually concerned with accounting. Fortunately the interviewers saw through me, realised I wasn’t the right sort of material for them to invest in, and I decided to do journalism instead. Most of the time I consider it a lucky escape.
But Easter eggs prove that programmers’ lives aren’t totally without fun. While much of what they do, I surmise (I’ve never taken any further steps toward finding out), is drudgery done to inhumane deadlines, a few times in their careers they get to deliver a meaningful product. Part of the compensation for this comes in sharing in a collegial atmosphere, which I got a glimpse of touring the Microsoft campus in Redmond in 1995 when Windows 95 was launched. The outward signs of this strange existence are wacky messages stuck to doors (at Microsoft everyone has their own office) warning of the particular kind of dangerous animal within; mouldy bits of pizza on paper plates atop filing cabinets; and sleeping bags unfurled beneath desks. The secret signs are the hidden messages deep inside the programs they write.
Easter eggs come in different forms but traditionally they list the code cutters responsible for a particular program. Excel 97 has a famous one, found by opening a new worksheet, pressing F5, typing "X97:L97" into the reference box and hitting enter. Then, press tab, hold control-shift and click on the chart wizard toolbar button. Lo and behold, you’ve launched a mouse-controlled flight simulator which takes you over a landscape from which a monolith protrudes with the names of Excel’s programmers scrolling down it.
Word 97 has one in the form of a pinball game, apparently launched by opening a new document, typing "Blue", selecting it and going to format/font, choosing font style bold, and colour blue. Back in the main screen, type a space after "Blue" and then click on Help/About. On the Word icon, do a control-shift-left click, and the game appears. Use Z for the left flipper, M for the right flipper, and Escape to exit. Except I couldn’t get it to work.
After much trying, though, I succeeded in unlocking Windows 98’s secret. In the process I learnt the precise locations of Memphis, Egypt; Memphis, Tennessee; and Redmond, Washington (it has to do with the fact that Windows 98’s code name was Memphis; go to www.worldowindows.com/w98egg.html to find out what I’m talking about).
I reckon I also uncovered a Gates family secret. Among the scores of names of those credited with developing Windows 98, two Gates appear: there’s Bill, and there’s Matthijs. Is this a bastard child of the Microsoft boss, a hitherto unknown brother, or such reverence on the part of an employee that he’s adopted Bill’s name?