Knowing When to Keep Your Mouth Shut

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

Best Advice: Choose Your Fights Carefully

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Confrontation is a natural mode for many humans, even nerd-variants like myself.

It’s a useful emotional vent, but can also be quite profitable by polarizing interested parties, and then selling one’s services to one side or the other. Lobbyists and consultants in Washington generate a lot of billable hours that way.

Me, well, I’ve learned the hard way that confrontation frequently fails, and that I lack the motivation and skill level to render it effective or profitable.

Over decades, I’ve learned that sometimes I want to stand up for the right thing but that it’s a bad idea to do so. There are situations I just can’t win, due to lack of resources or skills. There are situations with unintended consequences which I can’t anticipate or handle.

For that matter, some things really don’t matter. To take a trivial case, at heart, I’m a grammar thug. I hear me some bad grammar, and I want to fix it. However, that’s rarely worth doing; maybe only if I help a friend avoid some embarrassment. Nowadays, I suppress that urge, or channel it through my sense of humor, using phrases like “I hear me some bad grammar” or works like “gotta” or “shoulda.”

The first battle where I remember consciously thinking about this was in 1977 at IBM Boca Raton. Bell Labs wanted Unix (Linux/Android precursor) on the Series/1 minicomputer. I figured that porting Unix to S/1 would be fairly easy, fast, and cheap, resulting in far superior software. After suggesting that, I was informed that it didn’t matter, since it was an unwinnable effort. I made a stab at it, didn’t go anywhere.

In retrospect, I should’ve fought anyway, along with others with similar opinions. The whole industry would be different.

Down the road a bit, at IBM Detroit working with GM Research, manufacturing customers told me they wanted Unix on IBM systems. While considering suggesting that, I was told to pick my fights carefully. I tried gently suggesting the idea, and accomplished nothing but pissing people off.

Later, when a traditional system was proposed for a big dealership application, I quietly suggested a Unix system, and was told that would piss off people even more, so I held my tongue.

Nowadays, there are many opportunities to confront peopleā€”for example, public agencies whose role is to help vets. I just don’t confront people; I’d prefer to show respect to the participants and work with the people who want to get stuff done. Turns out, that’s what they want, and the whole thing gets results.

(If my approach works, you’ll hear little from me, and a lot from other people who I want to get the credit.)

Other situations include press involvement; I’m often in situations where bad actors fake the news, including making up quotes or selective editing.

Sometimes correcting a lie just repeats it and makes it worse, so I’m just avoiding fights altogether. That’s too bad for the publication, since it provides an illustration of untrustworthy behavior which will return to haunt ’em.

So, sometimes fighting is the right thing, if the cause is right, and you have a shot at winning. You don’t want to make things worse.

More frequently, you show respect and work with the people who still believe in what they do, and that works for me. You can try that also.

Photo: Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock

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