Programmer networks the social, hacks the computational

Programmers are not a group easily associated with sociability. Garrisoned at the keyboards of innumerable startups, techies often find themselves to be denizens of basements, according to senior Herb Susmann.

Yet, for a field that is renowned for an all-work, no-play lifestyle, it is refreshingly social.

“I think a lot of people looking into the community don’t get why these people in bushy beards are spending all of their time doing these weird things, but I think a lot of it is for the social rewards,” he said.

For a class assignment, Susmann worked on a ray tracer program, similar to what Pixar Studios produces animation with, using a programming language called Bash. The synergy of the two formats is somewhat unusual, as Bash is used to add or remove files. Much of the interest in reconfiguration is not all that useful, Susmann admitted, but he said it’s “really cool.”

The playful hacker mindset motivates, attacking “arcane” problems partly for fun and partly because it warrants bragging rights.

“You do it because it’s not designed for it and because it’s really hard,” Susmann said. “Part of the mindset is you seek out really weird things to do because then you can talk to your friends about it. One of my friends from last year … would be like ‘I was tired of unplugging and replugging my router because it kept crashing, so I wrote a little program to automatically detect when it went down and then run three commands.’ That’s crazy, but it’s so cool.”

Susmann’s formative years were spent at home as a teenager, slicing through the tomes of his father’s engineering career that were lying around the house. His mother, a progressive Mennonite, found her son’s preoccupation with the programming manuals amusing, as he would read them before going to bed.

According to Susmann, some of his father’s manuals had command instructions to program games on these early computers. He found himself creating these games for many hours, something he believes is crucial to developing talent. That is, those who pursue an interest from an early age can really master a certain skill set – a pet theory of his.

Throughout high school, Susmann’s parents had a “hands-off approach” to his education. Prior to attending Lehman Alternative Community School, which did not have grades but written evaluations, Susmann was home-schooled. In an attempt to branch out and become a little more competitive, his parents nudged him to go to LACS.

The school had a proposal system through which students could request changes, but Susmann joked that they usually involved requesting doughnuts in the lunchroom. One of the experiences that led him to web development was creating a website that catalogued these requests, going as far back as the 1980s. He also interned at Knowledge Town, a web development firm out of Ithaca, N.Y., during high school, as LACS had a career exploration requirement.

Susmann made the decision to attend Geneseo based on the desire to branch out and meet more than “people who hang out in basements all the time, like I do.” In coming to college, his wandering interest was noticed by lecturer of computer science Homma Farian as Susmann inspected various posters in the department.

That fall he became involved in the undergraduate research computer lab run by Farian and has done many projects since including the schedule planning site Knight Scheduler and integrated light and sound systems for Syracuse University “frat” boys. He even dabbles in computational biology, modeling the spread of influenza through networks.

These days, Susmann spends his time reading physics textbooks from the ‘60s, watching “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and getting stranded in Washington, D.C. with his longtime friend senior Ian MacPherson.