Knowing When to Keep Your Mouth Shut

Knowing When to Keep Your Mouth Shut

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IBM

Back in '77, I had recently taken a job at IBM Boca Raton, in the "advanced technology" department. It was beginning to dawn on me that I needed to be somewhat less nerdy in behavior, if not core, attitudes.

A few folks visited what was then Bell Labs, which had been responsible for a lot of seriously good tech for decades. The Bell people proposed a port of the UNIX operating system to our new minicomputer, the Series/1.

("Minicomputer" is a dated term, but this was the seventies, and I learned coding using punch cards anyway. "Punch card" is also dated, youngsters.)

UNIX was developed by the Bell people based on their work at the MIT MULTICS project, and the name is a pun. I'd studied UNIX a coupla years before, at Case Tech, since it was perceived as a really good example of software development and impressive new tech. It was written in the C programming language, developed by the same guys. That was new in itself, since normally operating system code was done in machine language. (Yes, I'm oversimplifying a bit.)

When our team returned from Bell Labs, they were pretty tepid about the idea, but I was asked for an opinion. I felt that we could do better, but that UNIX would be great for the Series/1. Maybe I mentioned that it was far superior than the official S/1 operating system, developed using what some call the "waterfall" approach.

[One of the most eloquent descriptions of "waterfall" software development by Scott Adams]

 

My approach was politically and socially clueless. I failed to realize that local management had made a major investment in the official operating system, not only financial but also their careers might've depended on the success of the software. My suggestion was a non-starter, and I kinda understood that I needed to grow in non-technical areas.

Sure, I coulda fought hard for some kind of joint effort with Bell Labs to migrate UNIX to the S/1. It probably woulda meant frequent commutes to New Jersey, a mixed blessing, since I'm … from Jersey. (Inside joke for fans of Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars, part of the Thrilling Adventure Hour.)

My take is that UNIX on S/1 would be a great success, given its existing reputation and legitimization by Bell Labs and the phone networks of the time.

That woulda had vast repercussions on the whole computer industry, since much of the subsequent industry was based on UNIX systems, particularly the earliest Internet (ARPAnet and Sun Microsystems). Sun and related servers powered much of the early Net, including about a year of craigslist.

UNIX influenced a lot of development, for example, the filesystem structure of and later Windows. A UNIX variant, Mach, powers Apple Mac and even iOS.

Much more importantly, Linus Torvalds decided that the world needed an open source, free version of UNIX, and went ahead and did it.

The result is Linux, which powers much of the current Internet, it's everywhere but not obviously so.

For that matter, Linux is the basis for Android, which runs most of the world's smartphones.

If the Bell Labs folks, with minor help from me, made S/1 UNIX a big deal, this would have disrupted this history in unpredictable ways. It's probably good that I was timid, and decided to learn un-nerdly social behaviors over the course of decades. (I can simulate normal social behavior, but observe my clock running out at about 90 minutes. Seriously.)

Instead, both a phone company in Jersey and one in Ann Arbor ported UNIX to the S/1, but years later, and it's rare to find someone who remembers the S/1, or even UNIX.

My path took me less technical for the most part, spending 11 years at IBM as a Systems Engineer, kind of a tech consultant for customers. That's a technical position, but not like a UNIX porting engineer. I never completely lost contact with what I was about, for example, I remember learning C in what amounted to a storage closet at IBM Detroit in '85 or so. (If you live in Detroit, that's the building on Nine Mile, where it hits Southfield and Northwestern.)

In '95 I learned newer programming languages, Java and Perl, to participate in the incipient dot-com industry, helping develop Home Banking for Bank for America, while starting something called craigslist.

Nowadays I do lightweight customer service, and a great deal of public service and philanthropy. I know enough tech to have a meaningful conversation with people, more than I need.

I guess I'm much better off taking the path I did. The world didn't need anyone to disrupt the industry, particularly the path of Linux. People do benefit from a mostly-free service (like craigslist), which helps put food on the table, in the short run, and in the long run, ain't bad to "do well by doing good."

Middle Photo: http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2014-10-12/

Lower Photo: http://www.ricomputermuseum.org/Home/equipment/ibm-series1

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2 Comments

Andy Russell

Craig: As a longtime former IBM PR guy, I remember the Series/1 — even did some PR about customers using it to control / conserve their building's energy usage –>
http://ibm.co/1wZdQUZ

Customers could buy the Series/1 with or without an operating system. I even think UNIX worked on it in the early '80s, according to this –>
http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=358504

The Series/1 lead development manager (in Boca, I think) was Don Estridge. He later led development of the original IBM PC, and was the lead announcement executive for the PC, also in Boca. He was known as the "father of the IBM PC."

Even later, in the 90s, IBM brought out the RS/6000 line of RISC-based UNIX servers workstations and supercomputers, renamed the eServer pSeries in 2000. Today's Big Data trend can trace its roots back to commercial use of those 90s-era parallel processing supercomputers for data mining –>
http://bit.ly/1EDo1Up

Patsy

Computers had been and were in development when I started working but didn't become popular
until I was just about ready to stop working. Opening your mouth and inserting foot is a danger
in any field and I was top notch at it. I soon learned not to open mouth and speak the truth as I saw it until I was ready to move on.
You said you are a philanthroper. Would you like to teach me how to use a simple computer.
Every time I call my cousin back east to get me out ofbwhat I've gotten into she says "I don't know how you do it–are you positive you followed my instructions??????"

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