SM: What made you decide to get a PhD?
JH: My girlfriend was preparing to go to college, and she ended up going on vacation during her registration time slot. She asked me to go to the university and take care of her paperwork for her. I had to stand in line, and while I was standing there I saw an advertisement for a PhD in computer science. I did not know what it was about, but it seemed linked to abstract mathematics. There were other options, but that one intrigued me the most so I applied for it while I was there.
SM: What happened as you were doing the PhD and started to understand what you had gotten into?
JH: In a way, I was studying computer science only half of the time. The gentleman who ran the program spent a lot of time on mathematical theory. It did expose me to a lot of students who had studied nothing but computer science. At that time we were still using punch cards. There was another university in France with which we had a lot of exchange. A professor there had spent a lot of time at Stanford and had come to France at the request of the government to start a research institute.
SM: Which year was that?
JH: It was so long ago; I have a hard time remembering the exact year. I imagine it was in 1979. The research institute was established, and he brought a lot of people with him from Stanford to help establish it. I spent all of my nights there playing with the computers, and there were a lot of interesting people there. That is where I learned about computer science. My degree program was technically computer science, but in reality it was all about mathematics.
SM: When you figured out there were interesting challenges in computer science, what did you decide to do with yourself?
JH: First, I had to finish my PhD. I then came to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) to do my post-doc work. I stayed there for one year.
SM: What did you work on at SRI?
JH: Mathematical projects. I was working on improving mechanisms to conduct mathematical proofs. It was a very programming-intensive project. After a year I returned to France to work at a research institute for computer science. I spent a few years there until I realized that I was really good when I wanted to present something. It seems that I have a sense of balance in presentations, and step by step I was getting ready for the next generation of computing with Macintosh.
My girlfriend was finishing her PhD in biology, so we decided to take a vacation. We went to the Indian Ocean for three months. I had a teaching opportunity on Réunion, which is a small island near Madagascar. After the teaching position concluded, we toured all of the islands around Madagascar. We returned [to France] in 1984, and when I walked back into my office I found a Macintosh on my desk. It had been given to the research institute, and they figured I would be interested in it as a toy.
I became extremely interested in the computer. It was beautiful both in aesthetics as well as in the user interface. Up to that point I had worked on punch cards, mainframes, and terminals. The Macintosh was perfect. It was a basic user interface, and I played with it a lot. I quickly realized that if you wanted to do more than the basic interface allowed, it was extremely hard. There were a new generation of programs designed around that interface, but they required a lot more work for the programmers. I felt that it was too complicated and that it was very hard to work on a system like that if you could not have an instant reward.
I decided that a new approach was needed. I envisioned an application that used doors and windows to link to code. When you pressed a button it would activate a program or transfer a specific message to an object. Object-oriented programming was starting to emerge and become mainstream around that time as well. Graphical programming lagged at the time.