Charles Simonyi was born in Budapest, Hungary, the son of Károly Simonyi, a professor of electrical engineering at Technical University of Budapest. While in high school he worked part-time as a night watchman at a computer laboratory, overseeing a large Soviet Ural II mainframe. He took an interest in computing and learned to program from one of the laboratory's engineers. By the time he left school, he had learned to develop compilers and sold one of these to a government department. He was hired by Denmark's A/S Regnecentralen in 1966 and moved to the United States in 1968 to attend the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his B.S. in Engineering Mathematics, specializing in Mathematics and Statistics, in 1972.

Simonyi then went to Stanford University for graduate studies and was hired by Xerox PARC during its most productive period, working alongside luminaries Alan Kay, Butler Lampson and Robert Metcalfe. He and Lampson developed Bravo, the first WYSIWYG document preparation program. He received his Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford in 1977 with a dissertation on a software project management technique called "metaprogramming." This approach sought to defeat Brooks's law by requiring all programmers to communicate through the manager rather than directly.

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