The original code breakers — and what we can learn from them

Thanks to major movies like The Imitation Game, the original code breakers of Bletchley Park (lead by Alan Turing) have received the widespread recognition they deserve: it's difficult to overestimate the importance of their work in our understanding of mathematics, cryptography and indeed the basis of all modern computers.

However, now that the origins of computing is a matter of public record, what can we learn from their story?

The first thing that strikes us is that this kind of rapid innovation take a lot of investment, and looking back, it's not hard to see why the UK fell behind the US in this area after the war — had it not been for the pressures of World War II and the race to decrypt the German's Enigma machine, it's doubtful we would have spent the money required to get a head start over other countries in computer development. In fact, it took a direct appeal from Alan Turing to Prime Minister Winston Churchill to get the level of resources needed. Even a man as talented as Turing needed the right backing.

Resources are one issue, but so is patience: while it might not appear so to the casual observer, technological innovation is really, really hard, and can take years even for the brightest minds in the industry. But stick with it, and the rewards can be huge. The story of Pixar and Steve Jobs' investment in it is just one of many famous examples of perseverance and hard work paying off in the end, despite many initial struggles.

We can also learn the value of simple practical solutions from Turing and his team: while decrypting every German message from scratch was the intellectually pure way of solving the problem, it was taking much too long. The breakthrough came when they realised every encoded German message would include certain phrases (such as "weather" and "heil Hitler!"). By assuming the messages contained these common words, the process of decrypting the entire message was made much more straightforward. Knowing some of the decoded message makes a huge difference in cracking the encryption.

Many years later, that drive for simplicity is still an important precept. By its very nature, software can get very complicated very quickly, and often for reasons that are hard to understand. A well-chosen assumption, such as the one made by Alan Turing about Enigma, can suddenly make everything seem much, much easier.

Ultimately though, the most important takeaway from that group of original code breakers is that there's (almost) no limit to what a small team of focused and smart people can achieve. As US scientist Margaret Mead once put it; "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Here at D4 we're not sure we would have had the level of genius required to crack enemy codes at Bletchley Park; but we like to think that we can still learn a handful of  important principles from those original code breakers working some 70 years ago.

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