Who is Laurent Bossavit (@morendil) ?

The next person is my series of Who is is Laurent Bossavit also known as Morendil. My father followed Laurents session at XpDay Benelux 2004. Actually his session was one of the inspirations to our leadership game.  Next thing I know he invites us to the first edition of Xpday France and wins the Gordon Pask Award.
Laurent is one of these people that has invested a lot in bringing agile to a wider know audience.
When I send him the questions he created this video as a reply. Again Laurent sets the bar higher for everyone.

What is something people usually don’t know about you but has influenced you in who you are?
I was abducted by aliens at an early age, and that is why I’ve sometimes had people tell me I was from another planet.

OK, I was kidding there, but there’s a grain of serious truth in that. Almost as long as I can remember I’ve been a total sci-fi nut. It explains a lot about me.
I litterally learned English as a teenager so that I could read my favorite authors in the original text; I started with Asimov, not so much because he’s what I like best, but because my dad’s sci-fi books were sorted alphabetically.

That early passion is related to the way I am curious about many things, and especially about futuristic topics from space ships to robots. To this day I have a yearning to figure out how the universe works, how our brains work. And I became curious about computers in particular, and when I was young working with computers was still something very sci-fi, though they are much more commonplace now.

If you would not have been in IT, what would have become of you?
If I’d had the patience to stick with my studies, I would possibly have followed in my parent’s footsteps and become some kind of scientists. No, wait, the better way to say that is to say that in some alternate universe, a different version of me did become a scientist.

I’d like to think that this version of me went on to work in artificial intelligence, and made interesting contributions to figuring out how our minds work, and how something made from mere neurons can be so diverse and creative. One of my favorite authors was Douglas Hofstadter, who wrote several wonderful books about these topics. He’s still a hero of mine, I’d like to meet him someday.

Instead, though, I learned as an autodidact. For many years the only degree I had was a bachelor’s.

What is your biggest challenge and why is it a good thing for you?
My biggest challenge now, and for several years, has been to improve myself.

One topic I found fascinating when I was a younger programmer was self-modifying code – that is, programs which would write to the memory locations where their own instructions resided and then later jump to the modified parts. I first encountered this when I was programming for the early Macintosh systems – that was back in the 90’s so it was System version 6 or 7; that old.

Back then that was viewed as a naughty, naughty thing to do. Obviously it’s a very low-level thing to do, and it’s going to make debugging very hard, and it’s going to make understanding what the program does even harder. If you’re a computer science person you’ll hate the notion of self-modifying code: it is already very hard to formalize and understand, mathematically speaking, what ordinary code can and cannot do, but self-modification raises this to yet another level of complexity.

But with my early interest in artificial intelligence I viewed my own mind as something very like a software program, and it’s obvious that self-modification is a huge part of what we do as intelligent minds. Every time you learn something, you self-modify. And if you think about it, the part of your own mind you would most like to change is the part that makes you better at changing yourself! Because you would then have a recursive improvement loop, which should give exponential returns on your efforts.

Sadly, our source code is very hard to access. It’s a tangle of neurons and maybe even other kinds of brain cells. We can only hack it very indirectly. But because of this connection between minds and programs I’m very interested in learning in general.

Of course, becoming smarter isn’t the only thing you can improve. It’s also a challenge, for instance, to try and become more happy. Or to try to become a better person, someone who contributes more to others being happy. Or to try to become a better parent to my kids, and so on.

What drives you ?
I’m very much driven by wanting to do things that I’ve found to be necessary, and not doing things because someone else told me to do them.

I can totally understand people who have a regular job, and I see it as one of the great attractions of a normal job that you don’t think all the time “what should I do next”, you can go ask someone for instructions. Sometimes I feel totally insecure and I feel like having that kind of a job would be a great relief.

And yet, for better or worse, I find that this makes me very uncomfortable. What I prefer is to decide for myself. What I like best is to work within a community, because that has the best of both worlds: I can make up my own mind about what to do next, but I still have other people around who can check my thinking.

What is your biggest achievement?
I’d like not to be the sort of person who goes around measuring achievements and trying to put everything on a single scale, so I’m not going to answer that directly. There are things I’ve done that I’m proud of, along many different axes.

One of the things I tend to be more proud of is when I have an original idea, or even when I add something to an existing idea, and I see the idea spread and other people are able to grow, and achieve something of their own, by building on the ideas I have improved myself. That’s a really nice chain reaction; it is like the self-modifying code idea, but applied to cultures instead of individual brains.

One thing I’m quite proud of in this respect is having invented the Coding Dojo and turning that idea into reality, with Emmanuel Gaillot. I’ve seen the effects on many people who tried it, who came to the Coding Dojo every week for a long time, and became obviously better programmers. It was really striking.

What is the last book you have read?
It’s “Feeling Good” by David Burns, a book on the cognitive and behavioral approaches to treating depression which was recommended to me by J.B. Rainsberger.

What question do you think I should also ask and what is the answer?
I’m stumped, frankly. Often I do my best thinking when people ask me questions, but I sometimes find it difficult to ask the right questions on my own. That is one reason I think community is important. So what I would like to ask instead is, if anyone viewing this video interview has a good question to ask me, can you please get in touch by email? (Note from the editor: please add your question in the comments for everyone to read and see the answer… )

Who do you think I should ask next?

There are so many people I could name. Emmanuel Gaillot whom I mentioned earlier is one; or you could find out more about some of the people who have been attending the Coding Dojo, I’m thinking for instance of Jonathan Perret. Or our US colleague Dale Emery who I always think of when I think of good questions, though he really is as good with answering questions thoughtfully as with asking them.

Update: if you liked this, please buy the “Who is agile” book. It contains similar answers from other agilists. And Laurent’s answer to the question: How do you balance your family and your work?