Oral-History:David Alan Grier

About David Alan Grier

David Alan Grier has spent much of the past decade helping the IEEE Computer Society develop new electronic products, editing its periodicals, and writing for its members. He has served as editor in chief of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, as chair of the Magazine Operations Committee, and as an editorial board member of Computer.

Outside the Society, he works as an associate professor of science and technology policy at George Washington University in Washington, DC with a particular interest in policy regarding digital technology and professional societies. There, Grier has worked for many years as a university administrator and has demonstrated a capacity for organizational management. He served as leader of the undergraduate computer systems degree, director of the University Honors Program, assistant dean of engineering, and associate dean of International Affairs. Grier has worked extensively within the computer industry. He started as a programmer and systems designer for the old Burroughs Corporation. He has also worked extensively as a consultant in the field.

About the Interview

DAVID ALAN GRIER: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate, IEEE Computer Society, 26 May 2015

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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

David Alan Grier, an oral history conducted in 2015 by Janet Abbate, IEEE Computer Society.

Interview

Interviewee: David Alan Grier

Interviewer: Janet Abbate

Date: 26 May 2015

Location: Blacksburg, Virginia


Abbate:

I’m talking with David Alan Grier on May 26, 2015. We are in the luxurious Virginia Tech conference room. I want to start with your education and early computing career.

Grier:

Okay.

Abbate:

You got a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Middleburg College in 1978.

Grier:

Yes.

Abbate:

Were you always interested in math? Is that sort of something you knew you wanted to do?

Grier:

No. I was sort of wavering between engineering and some form of computing, and Middlebury had neither. I chose the college because a lot of people around me, my family and teachers in high school, thought that I would be well matched for a liberal arts college. And when I got accepted they said far and away this is the best college you’ve gotten into; you should consider it. And so I chose it, and got there and discovered that they had one computer class, which I could have taught at that point, and as I drifted around and tried different things math seemed to be the best fit for me. There is a side of this that I did not realize at the time, that there is a fairly long tradition of math in my family, particularly my Mom’s mother, my grandmother; and that I was probably more immersed in the culture of it than I had thought.

Abbate:

Interesting. So you, as you’ve alluded to, already had some background in computing. You father worked for UNIVAC.

Grier:

Yes. My father joined UNIVAC in 1957 and then moved to Burroughs in 1964. While he was at UNIVAC he was trained, initially, as a product support person, we would say. After moving to Minneapolis for him to work in the collider factory — it was right at the time CDC split up — I believe he was offered to go with CDC as a new employee because he was an engineer and interested in computing. I believe that my Dad’s fundamental conservatism of having two really little kids got in the way of that, and he very much wanted to be in the field, and decided to stay with UNIVAC. They quickly trained him and sent him to Texas, a state he never once in his life considered that he was going to live; and lived there for the next seven or so years. In Texas, he was a manager of services that were provided by the SMU Computing Center, which has an interesting history because it splits off and five or six of the members there go off and form University Computing Services; and then another group go off to California and form an early computer group there. He worked for the oil industry and did a lot of traveling around and working with heads of engineering for small drilling firms and small refining firms, and selling them computer services which, in the 1950s and early 1960s they didn’t think they really needed. [Laughs.]

Abbate:

Hard sell.

Grier:

It was a hard sell. Because of that and because I started becoming aware of what Dad was doing, he would take me into the office on Saturdays. It was a UNIVAC; a Cray-designed UNIVAC 1103. I just was fascinated by the boxes and the machinery, and Dad, to keep me out of trouble, would let me play on the card punch, which was great fun for a kindergarten and first grader. At some point, somewhere there gave me a program that printed banners and showed me how to modify it to change the names on the banners, the size, and that would keep me busy for all of Saturday. There was one Saturday that — completely unaware, we now know — that it was a completely field defined program and I had typed in the wrong field, and I slewed out an entire box of paper. I thought that was exceptionally cool but it got me banned from the computer room for, I remember forever, but it was probably a week, a month, something like that. But to see this machine spewing out paper was just so cool. So that was my first entrance in it. Then we moved to Detroit with Burroughs. The motivation was UNIVAC didn’t know what to do with that office, and the fact that University Computing split off from it about the same time, was I think a measure of what they didn’t know. Burroughs was then very clearly the number two firm. This was right when the 360 comes out, so IBM does not have an obvious technical lead; that becomes obvious four years later. And Burroughs was in banking, and was on the verge of coming out with this new machine, the Burroughs B5000, and Dad was on the product management team. I haven’t done the work to figure out what it was; he was not the product manager, but he was a product manager of it, and there is a Datamation Magazine cartoon with a story about the Burroughs B5000 that has my Dad standing next to it saying, “My name is Tom Grier and I touched a B5000. So because of that, again, I had the same kind of access; Dad would take me down to the office on Saturday, or my brother and I would take the bus downtown. I’m kind of amazed that he let us do that.

Abbate:

How old were you at that point?

Grier:

Nine or 10. And [he] let us play. We really weren’t programming at that point, but we certainly were playing with the card punch machine and doing a little bit of modifying stuff. Then as a teenager a couple of things happened; I got an operator intern job that paid me an outrageous sum of money, which was probably minimum wage but for a teenager it was great fun. I stayed up all night, mounted tapes and took tapes off, and played around with the computer. Dad started bringing home training manuals that I started working through and learning. Dad, at this point, was put in charge of corporate training on the computer, and so I worked through the B5500 training manuals, and something of the B3500 training manuals, which is a very different architecture. The B5500 is the stack machine that Burroughs was famous for and was a beautiful, brilliant machine that was entirely practical. The 3500 was a much more conventional one; it came out of the electro data series, the Air Force series in the 1950s. I learned that, and there’s a picture I used on the cover of one of my books; that’s Dad standing around a B3500 and I like that, yes. What’s odd about it is he crosses his arms, I’m sitting with my arms crossed, he crosses his arms the other way, and I can’t make that comfortable. So I worked through that, and there is one year in there that we worked through the early volumes, the early versions of Knuth’s three-volume series, and do all of the material. I go up to, obviously, like eighth grade math at that point, and that in many ways, remains the foundation of my computer education. It was a great summer because it was a time of being close to Dad, of really being part of his work and, in particular, seeing the people he worked with. I would often go in with him. We lived in Birmingham, which is a northeast suburb in Oakland County; northwest suburb of Oakland County. And Burroughs at that time was at more or less, Second and Grand River. He would commute and carpool with three or four of his peers. Going in as a young teenager with them and sort of listening to them talk, and listening to their banter, and how they were thinking about problems, was also a very special time that most kids didn’t get. So that summer of working through the problems, of working with Dad, of learning the program, left me in high school with just a lovely computer education that had little applicability. The high school I went to, the school had a NCR Sentry 100 computer, which they let me use against their best interest. I did a whole bunch of things on that that were kind of typical examples of the time. It was again punched cards. I did some sorting routines, I demonstrated a simple database, I was — and still remain — quite interested in music at the time but then I had illusions that I would actually be a performer. I had a friend who was interested in old music, Renaissance era music, so we would design various stringed instruments. Lutes, he built a harpsichord, and to get the string tensions right I wrote the program that did that, which impressed everybody but, you know, it’s fairly straightforward. Bach tempered scale. And that was about it. Dad’s office had cooler stuff and Dad had cooler contacts. Sometime at, I believe it’s around ninth grade, Dad got promoted to be head of the Burroughs User’s Group. I believe he had been head of the user’s group for a long time, but around 1970 they had decided it was something real and it needed a full time executive director.

Abbate:

That was called CUE?

Grier:

CUBE, Cooperating Users of Burroughs Equipment. There’s an interesting set of records on it in the Babbage Museum, and if you ever want to be humbled, look up your father’s speeches. He references me in several of them, not necessarily in flattering ways. [Laughs.] And because of that, he then gets access to all the people who are; Burroughs had a purchase system, of purchasing computers rather than IBM’s rental, but everyone who had purchased them. This was 1968, 1969, 1970 that I started having contact with them and there’s no software industry yet. Everyone makes their own stuff. Burroughs supplies compilers, a sort routine, and some other stuff; a numeric library, but you’re on your own. This is like SHARE, an organization that wrote software and people would circulate it. One of those, and I want to say it was a CUBE meeting in Detroit roughly 1970, I met with a guy who was one of the officers who had written a word processor, and he demonstrated it on the B5000, or B6500, I guess it was that. And I thought this is cool, I can do that. Well, you can’t do that on a Sentry 100 computer with punch cards, but I got to Middlebury and there’s a side of Middlebury that needs to be understood. I was what’s called a Feb student; I showed up in February and I graduated in February. That puts you completely out of synch with your freshman class at a small liberal arts college. Middlebury had 450 students a class, I think. You miss all the fall stuff and you’re a loner. Middlebury took those students because now, as then, it sent virtually every student abroad their junior year and they needed to bring in more students to keep their budget, to keep their beds full. And so they took people they though could survive that kind of environment. It was lovely and there was a certain independence it gave you, but again, you’re out of the social part and you don’t have a lot of friends that you get in those first two months. And so not having that, I wasted my first year at Middlebury writing my own word processor, because they had a VAX, or PDPR; they had the VAX predecessor, and they had video terminals, VT100 terminals. I lived in their computer center and I wrote this word processor, and it’s primary usage was during three courses I took. The first one was the freshman comp class, which proved to be very, very important for my career because it was taught by the novelist Barry Hannah, who wrote books like Geronimo Wrecks. While he was a professor at Middlebury, he won a New York Critic’s Book Award, and he was shortlisted for a Pulitzer on several occasions. I believe he is now considered an important 1970s novelist. If you want to know what the 1970s were like, you read Barry Hannah. If you want to know the greater state of human condition, he’s not for you. In writing for him, I wrote a lot of things about Detroit. In my interim period, I had worked for an Oldsmobile dealership in suburban Detroit. Very quickly, for reasons I don’t completely understand, got a lot of contacts. I did a lot of shuttling of Oldsmobile executives around town because the dealership provided cars to them. I met a fair number of GM people. In particular, I drove the president of GM form one point to his house in Bloomfield Hills, and I have no recollection of why. All I know is he was grouchy and he was working in the back. But because that had very broad sense of how the auto industry worked and the various kinds of people, because my day-to-day life was mechanics; I’d picked up cars at factories, I delivered them to dealerships, I drove people to and from GM Tech, so I wrote about that in my freshman comp class. Barry probably was not getting anything like that from anyone else in the class. It occurred to me, because he had claimed I had an ability to sort of capture work, and that became sort of a touchstone of my interest in writing and my interest in reading. After that class, my first fall, I did a course which I still refer to as dead English poets, which is Chaucer to somebody — Tennyson, let’s pretend — and it was really during that period that I got the word processor going. I could make it handle more than one page of text. The video controls worked pretty much as they were supposed to; it couldn’t do a lot of text, it couldn’t do more than about eight pages; it couldn’t do any fancy formatting beyond Middlebury standard style; but it worked and it really started getting the attention of first, the English faculty, who were completely thrown over this. I had no idea what they were thinking, what it was. And most of them had a hard time grasping that I wrote it; that it was not the computer writing it; and I demonstrated it to them; I demonstrated it to the Vice President for Academic Affairs. I demonstrated it to the President, but that’s a different story because by that point, I was working in the president’s house as a nanny for his three sons. Again, they didn’t know quite what to make of it because this is coming out, what, 1974, 1975; and Word Star is 1976. It was a great opportunity, but again, they had no computer courses and nothing to do. I flailed around with different things; I even though briefly about majoring in English but I couldn’t see what I would do with that. I love writing, but it seemed to me to be something that went with something, not something by itself. I looked at physics and I ended up pretty much minoring in physics. But again, I was kind of more inclined toward electrical circuits and stuff; and that ended quickly. So there you’re left with mathematics; and in particular I’d done enough with Knuth to know that I had done things up to Level 10 or 15 out of things up to 50, and that I needed more math to do it right. So that’s sort of where I ended up, and then what I ended up studying, because it is a small program, was really the applied math of operations research, of statistics, of mathematical modeling; and in particular, there’s a professor and who I’ve gone back and talked with, Michael Olinick, who wrote a book, Math Modeling in the Social and Life Sciences, and he was finishing it when I was an undergrad. I did the solutions manual for all the problems, and that gave me a very real sense of what you could do with math and math models. I had a close relationship with him; I taught all his kids to swim, which is another thing about my undergraduate career, the professors I was close with had kids who needed to be taught how to swim. [Laughs.] And that sort of was the foundation, and I did computing on the side. I was a general consultant; I somehow got keys to the machine room; I knew how to reboot the computer in many different configurations. I don’t know how I got that. The one thing that still remains a mystery of that period is again, this relationship with my grandmother, who had a BA in mathematics, who no one in the family knew this. After I graduated from college, I’m having dinner with her and she puts down her fork and says, you know, I’ve always been sorry I never used my calculus. Grandmothers regret many things late in life, but the use of higher mathematics is rarely one of them. I let it slide for reasons that I just don’t, to this day, can’t explain. And after she was gone I started asking questions and my family said, you know, she didn’t go to college; we don’t have any idea of what you’re talking about. Mom suggested I talk to her brother, and my uncle said that he was fairly sure she meant bookkeeping because he knew she had kept the books for the family gas station. The foundation of our family fortune, such as it is, is based on a gas station that used to be located next to the University of Michigan. It’s now a parking lot and is since moved to Ypsilanti and now has a car wash. He was sure she hadn’t gone to college, and we have a family genealogist, as we all do, and she was convinced that she hadn’t gone to college, and said you know they’re Irish immigrants. Her mother cleaned hotel rooms. So I called up the University of Michigan and said hi, did my grandmother go there? They came back with remarkable speed and said yes. I said when did she graduate? They said 1921. And you know, Mom’s born in 1923 so it’s the right woman. What did she major in? The woman at the other end paused and said this is interesting; she was a math major. I ended up going and using the library there to go through those records. There were 12 math majors in 1921 in Michigan that graduated. Six of them were women and they’re largely women who are responding to the Flexor Report. They were women who thought they were going to be more or less midwives, or some other medical professional, and they had just been railroaded out by the Flexor Report, which said that we must devote medical education to people who can devote a full career; the subtext being that if you’re going to take five to seven years off because of babies, it’s not for you. Of the six, other than my grandmother, all five had careers that used higher mathematics; and my grandmother kept the books for a Texaco gas station located conveniently next to the University of Michigan. So that’s the piece I never got put together during that time, but it’s clear that with my Dad being in engineering, my grandmother — we had all the signs that she liked math and was good at it — that was a natural fit. In the early 1970s, other than a handful of big research universities, no one had computer science degrees.

Abbate:

Did your dad overtly encourage you?

Grier:

Yes. I think he saw that it seemed to fit me. In particular, there was a day — I have no idea who old I was — we sorted a deck of cards and the question is, as always when you deal with early algorithm courses, how do you do it just doing pair-wise comparison? And we worked step by step up through the basic bubble sort algorithm, and the quick sort algorithm. I know I’m in elementary school at that point, maybe junior high, and he was just impressed that it came very naturally to me.

Abbate:

How about your brother?

Grier:

My brother’s a journalist. He took geology for journalists in college — he also went to a small liberal arts college, but not Middlebury — and I wouldn’t say he was frustrated by it but it was not for him. I can remember going to the movies with him, and him telling us what the whole plot’s going to be, then he’d go, “because it has to be that way, this is how the plot works.” [I remember] that he read the newspaper long before I ever did, because he was interested in news. My sister is a librarian, so there’s a little bit of both in that. But Peter’s a journalist.

Abbate:

So you essentially kind of had a bachelor’s in computer science, without the name by the time you [interrupted]

Grier:

Sort of. Certainly by the time I was done.

Abbate:

Did you go straight to graduate school afterwards or did you work?

Grier:

No, I worked for about four years. It was just too easy to move into Burroughs. At some point in my college career, I started going to their management training program. Dad at this point had nothing to do with the program but he knew the people. I knew how to program the B6500 so I was welcome at that point. I followed the debate on the programmer crisis with interest and what intrigues me — this is again from Burroughs point of view and from Burroughs corporate point of view — that there was then, as now, a deep need for personnel but it was never really considered crisis, it was just you’re constantly recruiting and anyone with talent would get pulled. And so I did the courses there, and I did the training program that taught you all about how the corporate worked and the different roles, the different units and how they interacted; and so by the time I graduated in February I had; excuse me, before I graduated in February, the year before, I was more or less working full time for them. I was a software support specialist in Detroit for that summer and for some other period. When I graduated, I had more or less the pick of things. Dad was encouraging me to go to the B6800 facility in southern California. That intrigued me but at the same time, it’s taking an existing machine and making it faster. The 6800 was about half the size of the 6700 with twice the memory and other things, but it was not really a new machine. In Philadelphia, they were building a new scientific processor, a parallel processor, and that really intrigued me. So I went and interviewed there, and got a job as a system software support person for it. Because of having done Knuth, they thought I knew everything you needed to know about compilers, because if you remember Knuth projects his seven volume books to be largely about languages and compilers. And that’s going to be the end of the day, even though we don’t have the last three books yet. So they were building a vectorising compiler; the consultant was Dave Cook from the University of Illinois, whom IEEE gave a Pioneer Award to two years ago, something like that; and it threw me into the work on parallel processing, of vectorization, all the things that have come back with multi-core. It was hot during that period because it was ramping up with the competition with Japan, we’re still in the Cold War, Cray is out there and is getting a lot of orders and a lot of other companies think that we can pick them off. It was a really interesting run. The machine was probably ill conceived, in terms of Burroughs’ gifts. Burroughs was at that time, was then and its remnant still is largely servicing the financial industry. Their big machines are long gone and they do, you know, UNIX things that do the same kind of work their big mainframes did, but they knew how banking work, they knew how financial services worked. They really didn’t grasp the scientific and engineering applications for their Burroughs scientific processor, and they didn’t understand the market or even how they might be able to expand it into their existing market. So I was there for a year; no, I was there for more than that; trying to get four years out of this that I don’t remember. [Laughs.] I was there for at least two years in Philly, and it was clear that the end was in sight. So I started looking at graduate school and at that point, I started playing around with a variety of things and I discovered to my chagrin that no one’s going to take me in computer science without what they view as remedial work that I don’t think I need. University of Washington, University of Michigan, Princeton, MIT; the practical experience, the kind of training I got from Dad, was not there but the math models in the social and life sciences, particularly the stochastic models, still intrigued me and there are a whole bunch of places that were interested in taking me without that; that embedded me directly into a Ph.D. program without the intermediate master’s. So I did that, and at some level I would say I have a Ph.D. in data science. The kind of training I had in computer science, stochastic processes, data bases and data management would be very much what that was. In fact, right after graduation when I come to Washington, D.C., one of the very first things I do and one of the very first grants I get is for a conference board of math sciences meeting on what becomes big data. My principle speaker was Jerry Friedman from Stanford, and we were trying to introduce the concepts that become data mining to Washington.

Abbate:

Well, good; you answered some questions I didn’t have to ask.

Grier:

[Laughs.] As I said, I can put this together in a brilliant story.

Abbate:

I was going to ask shy statistics, but you pretty much answered that.

Grier:

It’s pretty straightforward. They take right in, they gave me money, it was not; it was interested that academe did — and I can understand why — didn’t value the kind of training I had and certainly by that point, by the early 1980s when I’m doing this, the Burroughs architecture is not going anywhere and that’s pretty obvious. That UNIX is — and I’m not trained in UNIX and in that structure — although UNIX and the Burroughs operating system both derive heavily from Multics. One of the aspects of being with Dad is that because of his work with the computer user groups, I got to meet a lot of very prominent computer scientists that he would bring in to talk with them. One who became a very close friend, and I am still friends with his kids, was a guy named Ted Glaser, who was the number two or number three person on Multics, and then goes off to Case Western, where he is, among other things, advisor to Don Knuth. He rotates around a bunch of places, but since he was one of the early architects of Multics he was in great demand and Dad brought him in. He’s blind, or was blind from his birth; and was and remains, one of the most impressive computer scientists that I have because of the very vivid way he could describe things. He had had some disease in utero, that had meant that when he was born he could detect light for a little bit and then it was gone. He became a physics major in the 1950s and got bitten by the computer bug. But his sense of algorithm design, of parallelism was just obvious to him. I remember talking about algorithms as a teenager with him, and his insights as to how they work were just amazing, and he couldn’t see a thing. One of the things he loved is he had a collection of math puzzles, a bunch of bent wires with a cloth — this is the way I remember — the idea was to get the loop around the middle wire and get it out. It looked close to impossible and he would just sit there and play with it; then off it came, back in it came again. There was another one that involved the concept of gray code. There’s a bunch of rings all interlocked, and you could take them off a bar and put them back on the bar; and he went through the sequence and he could just do it; back on, back off, while he was talking. This was a very, very impressive person. Because of that I believe I got a very deep education; but it was one that was increasingly, as the 1980s were unfolding, out of step with what the new computer science departments were doing. I think they viewed it more as an IT degree and I don’t think it really was. So stats was it and that’s where I went, but it didn’t hurt me any. I immediately got a lot of good offers out of Washington; and the one I took here was here at GW, because by then I had fallen in love and married a lawyer and she saw Washington as a very promising place for her career. We had met in Seattle, where she was pursuing an LLM in Asian law; and particularly, her concentration was Japanese law. So during my last years of Ph.D., she goes to Japan for a year on a Fulbright; I go over to visit her a couple of times and we actually were married over there. When I got the offers [from] Bell Labs, several schools on the West Coast, a couple other companies, she wanted to go to Washington and it seemed like a good match.

Abbate:

What was the initial position you were hired for?

Grier:

Computer and information systems, in the liberal arts school. GW at that point in time did not have a computer science department. It had and electrical engineering department that had a program that we would now very clearly call computer engineering.

Abbate:

So it didn’t have an engineering school at that point.

Grier:

Yes it did.

Abbate:

Oh it did, but you weren’t in it.

Grier:

I was not in it; I was in the liberal arts school. The GW engineering school is one of the older ones in the nation although it’s quirky and it reflects the fact that it’s in downtown Washington D.C., in Foggy Bottom and was a commuter school, largely, until the mid-1960s. It’s a small, compact one that offered the major things but the part of it that wagged the dog [?] was civil engineering because Washington does civil engineering in a big way and that was attracting people. At that point, it did not do a lot of electrical engineering. By the time I get there, there’s an electrical engineering department, there’s a computer engineering section in it, and they’re fine but you know since you’re in a university, there are divisions between schools that set up moats between and they lob epithets at each other. So I didn’t have a lot of contact with them. The school then, as now, is really focused on policy, politics, Washington stuff; and by the mid-1990s it was clear that a lot of the faculty had lost interest in supporting some of the sciences, and supporting a computer science department within liberal arts. Following the 1992 recession the budget of the program was cut and the number of faculty members was cut. It was clear that in the dean’s point of view, and probably in the vice president’s point of view how that I understand that world better, that program was not going to be going places; that they were transferring funds from it to poli sci, into history, in to econ, and to the field that grew quite rapidly, international affairs, from that point. When I arrived, international affairs at the undergraduate level was 25 or 30 students; it’s now 2500 at GW and is the largest undergraduate major.

Abbate:

Did computer science move from liberal arts to engineering?

Grier:

It was shut down.

Abbate:

So it completely went away?

Grier:

I completely went away. There was the 1992 recession, the university had to cut its budget, as I recall, by four percent and it was clear that; the new president at the time said, we’re not going to slice things down, we’re going to cut programs. Within Columbian College, the liberal arts college there, they put together a task force to determine what those things were and I don’t think we worried about it at the time, but I know programs like dance did, and started mounting a campaign to save themselves and find ways to combine with other programs. The language programs merged in an odd and quirky way that still exists and doesn’t seem to help any individual language particularly well. The program report at the end of the day was shut down computer science. By that time, I had established myself as the articulate scientist and I was serving on all the college committees where they wanted an articulate voice in science. In particular, the program that I’d gotten very deeply involved with was the honors program, which was their effort to attract and retain good students. The school at that point had a tremendous problem of attracting good students and then watching them go to Georgetown and Penn, just en masse. We were losing half of the top one percent after one semester. So that was getting lots of money, lots of attention, and lots of opportunity. My department was on the termination list, so I made the jump into an administrative role because that’s where the promise was. I had just been granted tenure but it was not clear what I was going to be tenured in, which kind of remains true to this day. And so I was there and I was administrator for the associate director, or assistant, I was the number two person [laughs] for two years under Susie Strasser, who is an American historian, the historian of housework. I don’t know if you know her.

Abbate:

Right, not personally, but [pause]

Grier:

She’s a hoot and I learned a great deal by working with her and by reading her work. Then she left; I want to say that she left and went to a fellowship like at the Hagley for a couple of years. Oh, she had a Guggenheim. She was an independent scholar for a couple of years and then ended up in Delaware. So I applied for the job and got it; and the honors program gig is a great gig at the university because the requirement that you have is keep the students, that’s your goal. And so you ask what kind of courses would you like to have? To a person the top 10 percent says we want small discussion-oriented classes where we can argue about ideas and we don’t care what they’re about. And that gives you a great feeling. You can put things together and combine things that are fun to do and fun to discuss, and engage them. I still have contact with a large number; oh, I’d say I probably have a list of 400; but in a given year, I probably have contact with half of that. And they point to those classes as what kept them at GW and what shaped their intellectual career. We’d do things like we’d combine philosophy with everything; we’d combine politics with everything; I remember several things that involved the aesthetics and politics of nature. And other things that would be more suited to Middlebury than there. And that was the decade; it was a great decade, I really enjoyed that work. In the middle of it, when I’d started to figure out how administration worked, the question remained, what am I doing in terms of it? I somehow thought that I would be able to keep computer science going, as administrator. Without a department, that’s really tough. I did some things; we were the first department at school to get an internet connection. I had gotten a small grant as a computer scientist for a Sun workstation. When they shut down the computer science department, the Sun workstation went with me because no one was paying attention. We were able to get a router and we were able to get internet access in 1992 or its precursor. And then when Mosaic came out, I got a bunch of undergrads and we did a bunch of web pages on our SPARC workstation. Just as I had 10 years before or 15 years before with a word processor, I ran around the college going this is going to be big, and got more or less the same kind of reaction. Administrators and computer science; the computer center’s chair looking at this thing, not sure what to do with web pages. In particular, I had a student whose name was also David, and he did a personal web page. It was an early 1990s personal web page, a hodge podge of everything. In particular, we did a spiel on this thing that showed pictures of what he’d done, it had his resume, and had a drop box on it so that you could exchange documents with him. Then there was the graphic one that we did, there was click here for a picture of David (not to life size). If you clicked on it you got the Michelangelo “David.” And that always brought a laugh; and the cemented it, you know, what this was in the administrators’ eyes, and in particular the head of admissions was new, a guy named Fred Seigel. He saw that and he knew that he was going to use it, shortly. He said what do you think, five years? And I said I think you’re going to start seeing it amongst the wealthy high school students, access in two, by 1995. So he started putting money into developing a recruiting web page. But that’s not computer science.

Abbate:

So were you also doing a research program, kind of in parallel to administration and the other things?

Grier:

I was finishing up with my computer science research program; I was doing stochastic modeling and stochastic models. By that point I was on the board of the winter simulation conference, and what had interested me technically was when you do the simulation where you look at two things that are negatively correlated to each other; when one goes up, the other goes down. The thing that perhaps goes down, and you want to go with the thing that goes up, is something that you can sense of in real life. And because of that, you can reduce the amount of computing power that you need, and that’s really cool. I’ve written a bunch of papers on that and I was on the board of the winter simulation conference; and through 1994-95, I was finishing that up. But I discovered how hard it is to keep that going when you’re an administrator. The work station wasn’t really enough for all of that.

Abbate:

Ever think you’d need more power, maybe?

Grier:

The university central computer system was a 4381, which was entirely useless for me, because I didn’t program in any of those languages and those weren’t the languages of computer science. So near the end of that, I get a grant from one of the big supercomputer centers that were funded in the late 1980s. This is kind of a second round of those centers; and it was in Frederick, so I believe it was associated with the National Institutes of Health. I had a simulation process that I wanted to test empirically, that required, unlike most simulations, almost no memory; 500 megabytes; nothing, really; but used lots of computing cycles. So from their point of view, they gave me a massive grant, in terms of computing time because it kept their utilization at 50 percent and they could go back and say see, we’re utilized at 80 percent. And that’s really the last big project that I did and it was interesting because the paper from it, or at least my part of the paper; I did it with a couple others at different schools; we showed people how to do this kind of simulation where instead of just doing the one thing you want, you also simulate something against it. You look at the difference and use that to minimize the computing power. And that still remains in circulation, now reduced to kind of like a footnote, as 20-plus year old papers ought to be. But that’s the big contribution I think I made to that field and that’s what I feel good about. But that was the end, and so the question became what do I do in this program that doesn’t have a large number of engineers or scientists, and [pause]

Abbate:

You’re talking about the honors program?

Grier:

Yes, this is the honors program, so this is about 1995 or 1994. The question became what could I write, because I had done a lot of writing in college and other English courses I did; fat novels, weird novels, and incomprehensible poetry; which I believe were fat novels as 19th century novels; weird novels as post-Joyce; and incomprehensible poets, we are the beats and afterwards. I had tried to do a little bit of writing and gotten nowhere. I talked to friends and colleagues and someone said you live eight blocks from the Library of Congress. You should see what you could research there; you know, what the markets are, what you could write about computing. So I went to the Library of Congress with a friend and took the 40-minute little course on doing it; and in the process discovered that they had all these records from famous dead scientists. I thought, that’s cool. So I went and I started to read their files just to see what was in them. They have a fair number of things from the ENIAC, they have a fair number of things; they have von Neumann’s files, and there was one file — oh blast, the people from Los Alamos — who were also deeply involved in simulation, which is why I was involved in it; Metropolis, Nick Metropolis’ file. I was reading through that and there was a footnote on an article that I don’t know to this day where he published it; but it was in manuscript form; that said computing is now relatively easy, we must never forget how hard it once was. There was once a WPA project that did scientific computing and it had to tell people how to do negative numbers, and it listed a little poem that it taught people to know what happens when you subtract a small negative number from a bigger negative number, and vice versa. I was immediately struck by the fact that somewhere there had been a WPA project that involves computation. I said this has to be too cool, I’m going to write this up.

Abbate:

You became a historian as kind of a follow-on to, you needed a project.

Grier:

I needed a project and I view myself really as a writer. You are a trained professional historian. I like to read history because it’s cool. I particularly like well-written history because I think novelists take flights of fancy too far. [Laughs.]

Abbate:

It seems like you had been really interdisciplinary from the beginning.

Grier:

Yes.

Abbate:

In college you were doing things across the university [interrupted]

Grier:

Across the university, and there’s one other college professor who is very important, which is Bill Cappon [?]. Again, he had kids I taught to swim. His father was Bruce Cappon, the American Civil War historian; and he and his father, at that point — at that point in time, this is what I recall — were working on what was his father’s last book. And Bill then did, as with all of Bruce Kaplan’s books — it’s not one book about the Civil War, it’s a book of five — and then Bill finished off the remaining four. In particular, I took a course from him called The American Presidency, which was a winter term course. Remember you had this one month where you took only one course and skied during your free time. And so I took The American Presidency because I needed a history credit. I thought it was a really great course and got to know him well, and then came back to him. I don’t know what gave me the gall to do this, but I said I’d like to study American transportation systems. And he said that’s great, let’s do it. So we had a semester where he and I studied American transportation systems from the arrival in Jamestown, forward to what was then being discussed, you know, Apollo and the SST, and things like that. We really didn’t care about rockets that much. [Laughs.] It was a great opportunity to work closely with someone like that. I learned a great deal about how he worked and how he approached subjects. In particular, I learned what we would call historiography; how you framed a set of questions and what’s the theory behind it? That experience, combines with my work with Barry Hannah, really framed my undergraduate education. My math was important, but it was just what I do. These two stood out for me and those sort of three elements made the honors program for me.

Abbate:

That’s what I was also thinking. You’re already practicing in the honors program; I see you had seminars that were combining different disciplines.

Grier:

Very much so. In particular, I had one seminar that was on exploring how statistics and the nation state are tightly linked. Using the state and statistics are not quite doublets of each other, but they’re pretty close and certainly when you go back to URI, the American Statistical Association, and other things, you see these two things interlocked. You know, the British Census of 1800, the American Census and all that it had, the Indian Census of 1848, all of these things are state-building activities. That was a great course. I don’t think they ever learned about the statistics we were supposed to teach them but we had a great time. So going to the Library of Congress, I started putting together that story, and my grandmother’s story fit into it all of a sudden; and particularly the historical research, if you remember, it was about the time the movie, I guess it was the novel, Possession was out, which A.S. Byatt is a lovely writer and has a wonderful craft of the story. It’s a great intellectual whodunit. So I had read that and was sort of bitten by that, and in particular on this WPA project. I said, I’m in D.C.; I know how to use the Library of Congress archives; how do you use the WPA archives? I marched down to the archives and said hi, I’m looking for the WPA computing project. They looked at me and said you’ll never find it. I said why? They said there are about 200,000 WPA projects. I said, but it has to be out there, how do I find it? They said if you had the number of the project. I said how do you get the number? They said well maybe it had a publication; go back to the Library of Congress. So I marched back again to the Library of Congress and I asked the librarian to help, and they said no. We came up with a couple of things that might have been it that proved to be useless; but as they did it, I decided to go through the math reference section and about the second shelf in the math reference section, top one, there are a bunch of buckram books that are now familiar — I have a complete set — I pulled one down and instead of saying WPA it said FERA Relief Agency. I don’t remember what the “e” is for — Federal Emergency Relief Agency — which I had never heard of but it was a table of the basel functions and I opened it, and I said this has got to be it. There was a number so I took down that number and I ran back to the archives. The guy was kind of shocked that I was back the same day; and I said this is the number. He said, it’s missing, you know, the first three digits. I said there were no other numbers. He said do you know where it was? I said I believe New York. We go down into the deep basement to the old archives. He gets a box out with microfilms and pulls out about six of them and gives them to me in a box and says, if it was in New York, it’s on these microfilms or it’s gone. And it was on the second microfilm.

Abbate:

Yay!

Grier:

So this is A.S. [inaudible], like entirely, this is possession. So I started probing that and then the question became context for it, since I’d worked with Bill Cappon. What’s the context for it? And that, and the comment my grandmother had made about she had studied math, you know why? And particularly what those other women had done. And I started to realize I was looking at the context for computation and that in fact, the story we tell about computation, which is more or less that it comes ex nihilo out of 1946, with a small run-up of punch card machines and adding machines, you know, things that Jim Cortada has done, and Mike Williams, and all of the others missed what I think is the real context, which I think is massed human labor. And that all of a sudden I walked into this massed human labor; I found textbooks about how to do this; I found guides about how to evaluate your computing office in your company; I traced through the scientific part going back to Halley’s Comet; this was the real context for it. The machines were just sort of a side light that misses the point that we were doing a great deal of computation prior to 1946; that it was hard, that it was expensive, and that the real trick of it was getting; how could you organize it getting the cheapest labor you could possibly find?

Abbate:

So you published this marvelous book.

Grier:

Yes, When Computers Were Human, that’s the honors program book.

Abbate:

And that really; so at this point, I mean you have this really interesting kind of braided career because you’re a technical person, you’re an administrative person . . .

Grier:

Yes.

Abbate:

. . . which we’ll get into a little more; now you’re a historian, a [inaudible 56:23] historian.

Grier:

I view it more as a writer but I’m grateful that the historians; I’m grateful that I have a Princeton book and it won an award, and all I can say is thank you for including me, as well.

Abbate:

But then also, you’re a popular writer and blogger, not just for academic historians et al — which I think is really interesting — and I think you’re also; it seems like your career kind of reflects your view of computing.

Grier:

Very much.

Abbate:

It’s sort of not just hardware, it’s the people, the purpose [interrupted]

Grier:

It’s the people. It’s the people; and that’s without question. I think this goes back to Barry’s comment. There was a time; there’s second writer in my life, who is the guy who taught me fat novels, the nineteenth century novels, Tom Gavin. I did that course, what, two years after Barry’s. I can remember sitting in the same coffee shop in Middlebury, and this is so New England coffee shop, with people in heavy wool sweaters singing 1970s folk songs and stuff; and Barry really pushing me, saying I’m from Mississippi, this is the world I write, this confluence of Native Americans and the South and all of these other things. You’re from Detroit, you’re a Detroiter, you write about work. And [he] talked to me about the different themes and in particular, pointed out how there’s an interesting niche beyond kind of the Marxist 1930s liberal point of view that would get a richer view of yes, labor is exploited and it’s awful, and there’s corporate oppression and we need to rise up, but there’s a human side that makes it work that was fascinating that he encouraged me to tell. Tom Gavin caught on to the same thing, particularly in writing. I wrote an essay for him on Dickens that caught the fact that Dickens is largely outraged at his society for not living up to its ideals. In particular, I think it’s best captured — which is not what I wrote about — in the death of poor Tom in Bleak House, where the doctor is holding this outcast as he’s dying and trying to get him to recite the Lord’s Prayer as he’s dying. And then he dies in the middle of it and the minister, in his mind, goes into this beautiful Dickensian rant about the injustice of this world and why can’t society live up to the ideals on which it’s founded. And Tom grasped that that meant something to me; that I could do it in other points. We talked about it and at the time he was writing a novel called King Kill, which was about the von Kempelen and the alleged machine that played chess, the Mechanical Turk, which as we all know was a fraud but that was interested him. We talked several times during that year and the following year about how the machine would have worked or how it would have conceptualized, and what was the nature of mechanical engineering in the 1940s, when this appeared. And, you know, Babbage at this point had come up with a symbolic language for mechanical engineering that was too complicated for him to use effectively all the time. We know that when he did his designs for the analytical engine, he made mistakes in using his own language. But that was there that clearly the von Kempelen was maybe not more directly a Babbage, but where Babbage’s mechanics were quite influential in the mechanical engineering community, and would’ve had some sense of the linkages and work that had been done; and certainly, the kind of linkages that were being described, built, and being moved into other activities late in the nineteenth century. It was always great conversation but again, he’s pushing me towards this human technological interaction; particularly the interaction; it’s never between the technology, it’s the discipline system that you need to make the technology work. That insight just really was great for him and for me; not for him, I have no idea what he got; I can’t claim to have any influence over King Kill. But it was really an opportunity to think deeply about those things at an unusual age, so when the opportunity came to write, that’s what I wrote about and it led quite naturally about 20 years later, in 2009, long after leaving honors and at this point, in the final stage of what I hoped to be my last administrative assignment at the university, Associate Dean for International Affairs, I got a phone call from a guy who said would I like — it was odd because it was a phone call, it was not an e-mail — would I like to keynote a conference. I said sure, I’d love to keynote a conference. Who doesn’t? It was a business conference, I didn’t mind that; and it was in San Francisco, I mean, who doesn’t like to go to San Francisco? He talked about it, and how much time, and what it was, it was in the fall, it was going to be just lovely. And then I decided to ask, what’s this about? He said it’s on crowdsourcing. I said I have no idea what crowdsourcing is. I had no idea; I’d never heard the word crowdsourcing. He said, but my boss said you’re the expert. I said I don’t think so; I think you’re thinking of some other David Alan Grier. There was an awkward silence at that point. Then I started asking him what was crowdsourcing? And as he described it, I said no, no, wait, wait, wait, I’ve been studying crowdsourcing for 15 years! Twenty years, probably. I know all about this. It has a name? Who knew! That shifted very clearly what I was doing, but it gave it sort of a field in which to work. And it’s not that I’m an expert in crowdsourcing, I claim that I deal in the field of new work. It is people being put into a system, and a system that’s disciplined by a machine that requires certain standards to make it work. It was a great conference; I really had a good time because that’s the conference also that I gave the talk, and found all these new people, this new business, and just had a wonderful time, and it was my first big step into Silicon Valley in a long time. After the last day, I’m getting ready to head back and my phone buzzes. I look at it, and there’s the message, “Dude, do you want to go to the theater tonight?” I go back and say, “Who is this?” It’s my namesake, the other David Alan Grier, who was doing a comedy routine in San Francisco that night, and it was like the first time in his life that he had Googled himself and I came first and not him.

Abbate:

Oh my gosh.

Grier:

He has been the bete noir of my life since I was like 17 because we grew up in the same neighborhood of Detroit, our fathers knew each other.

Abbate:

I didn’t know that.

Grier:

Yes.

Abbate:

So we’re talking about David Alan Grier, the comedian?

Grier:

David Alan Grier, the comedian. We represent a very rare breed. Our birth dates are in the Library of Congress records because we were born in the same year. We feel very proud of that. My father, when we was running consumer relations for Burroughs, hired back in the 1960s, when one had to hire — when baseball players had to work in the off season so that they could get paid — hired a black pitcher from the Detroit Tigers, who was getting an MBA and kind of needed intern work. Dad said, I love baseball, come on down. It was a great summer because we went to see all of his games, and he was of some importance. I believe 20 games is the mark of a great pitcher; and I believe he won 20 games that year. We got his autograph and got to know him. And then comes the riots. This guy called Dad up and said hi, one of the reasons we had these things is because that the business communities don’t know each other; you don’t know any black businessmen, you don’t know any black preachers. Dad said no, I don’t, except for you. He goes exactly. We’re going to have a Monday lunch; we’re going to get together, we’re going to meet people, and we’re going to talk; we’ll have someone speak about their business every month. The idea is we’ve got to talk because you work in the neighborhood that I live in with my friends, and their businesses, and you don’t know. Dad said, it works for me, so he was part of a group of 30 or 40 businessmen, black and white — and black preachers — who would meet once a month. And in the process he met a psychologist who worked at Henry Ford Hospital, named William Grier. My Dad’s brother was named William. And they became friends and they both had sons named David, and they thought that was the most amazing coincidence, and they didn’t bother to ask about the middle name. We’ve since figured out we’re probably distant cousins. We go back to the same roots in the Delaware Bay and the male names just cascade down the branches. [Laughs.] So anyway, David texted me that day in San Francisco and so after having had two days of this great conference and up all night, I stumbled down to a comedy club to hear David do his usual comic routine, which as I describe it, is about the failure of male sexual drive to be properly tamed by women in order to produce standard, long-standing and stabile relationships, which he describes in a little more obscene way, but none the less. That sort of opened it up; I think is a very natural outgrowth of When Computers Were Human and what I was doing; it’s people, it’s work, it’s systems, it’s how they work. I have a historical bent, there’s no question, and I’m grateful to have been included in the history community, and recognized by it, and awarded by it. But I also know what a real historian is and [laughs] you’re one.

Abbate:

You play one on TV.

Grier:

I play one on TV. You know, Mike, when I started writing, I submitted something to an ACM conference where Tim Bergen was chairing some session. He got the paper and Tim said this is not what I’m soliciting. I’m soliciting first person anecdotal responses about things that are historical. This one isn’t but let me give it to Mike Williams and see if he likes it. Mike liked it, immediately got in touch with me and said, I’ll publish this. I said whoa, because he was then editor of the Annals, and I thought publication venue, and started writing things for them, specifically, and that pulled me into Mike’s orbit. I was publishing about two things a year there for a while, and Mike pulled me in and said would you like to edit a column? Which I did; it was called the “Happenings” column when I got it, which to me was like so 1970s, so I called it “Events and Sightings.” I enjoyed it because I met a lot of people doing it, and then after doing that, Mike wanted to know if I wanted to be Associate Editor over all columns, and then I moved up to be Associate Editor-in-Chief under Tim. Tim took over at a rough time; his wife had cancer and passed away just before he became editor. So I was kind of acting Editor-in-Chief there, not really, but he kept the important stuff; he kept the papers and the editorial process going, and I read everything else. That introduced me to a lot of the IEEE, it got me going to IEEE meetings, and the rest, as they say, is history because I enjoyed the meetings, I enjoyed that broader community and seeing what they did. So when Tim’s term ended, I applied for it. I was also one of the logical ones, but since I now had a lot of contacts, I think I got the job easily. And then shortly after getting it . . .

Abbate:

Editor-in –Chief.

Grier:

. . . Editor-in –Chief, and then after a year or two of that, the editor of Computer approached me; Computer magazine, the big flagship of the periodicals, and said would I be interested in writing a one-year column celebrating twelve great achievements in the history of computing? I thought about it for a while and I really wanted to write a column for Computer, that would be so cool. But I didn’t want to do that in part because I knew that, as editor, I was really trying to bring in people onto the editorial board who were trained in history; people like yourself because I felt that prior to that, the Annals was just a little bit too much of collecting first person anecdotes. Those are very important, and politically, they’re extremely important for the magazine; but I wanted the core to be people who processed those stories and put together more sophisticated narrative. So I didn’t really want to revert to that style of celebratory writing. I wanted to write about people, I wanted to write about people who had contributed to the field, and I wanted it to be in a bigger social context. So I pitched this idea and said, you know, one of my favorite writers from my childhood was the essayist E.B. White, who I know most kids know from Charlotte’s Web, and Stuart Little, and whatnot. I like Charlotte’s Web but Stuart Little I find oddly silly, and The Trumpet of the Swan close to incomprehensible. But I adored his essays because they’re beautifully constructed and are quasi-historical in that he is describing the world of the 1940s and 1950s, but you kind of get the feeling it’s 1910, that cars don’t exist so much, and that the train is still important, and that county fairs are the center of life, and that Maine is equal to New York in power and prestige. He uses that explore human relations to each other, the family, the relations of people to commerce, of different groups of people to each other. And I said I’d like to rewrite some of those essays in the computing world, exploring relations of people of this community to each other, the different institutions, and the editor looked at me like I was daft and said, write one up. So I wrote one up and I must have gone through 20 drafts of it; and this is the managing editor, and he was a former college lit prof, and he read it and he said this is it, we’re going to make this work. So he gave me the job. The first couple kind of dropped in a hole, and then I wrote an essay — it was April — called “Coming of Age.” It said that if you go to a computer museum you see the same process of people explaining what they did. What they’re really doing is saying this is when I came of age because they don’t know how to do that. From that column, I got a tidal wave just crashing down, of e-mails; of men who had done that; of women whose husbands had done that and they hadn’t grasped what that is; of kids whose mothers gave them this article, who said that’s what your Dad was doing. All of a sudden, bang, I’m in the center of the Society and I have a correspondence going with dozens and dozens of people on this subject of when I came of age. And that column still goes on in some form or another, but it was that period of 2007, 2008, 2009, when I commanded a readership that I hope at some point I can command again. I don’t think in that forum, but command it in a very emotional, very visceral way that meant something to a large number of people; and use an experience that was really touching and really important to me. I did; well, I did a whole bunch of things during that period; and some of these essays re going to be viewed I hope as capturing that period of transition, largely across mobile computing and cell phones, and like. That is the essay that is based on my last trip to see my father. I had called him and he had had a fall. The nurse said your Dad rallies for you; you don’t know what’s happening because the phone conversation is normal; get here as fast as you can. And so it’s that story and it involved a cab ride from DTW to my parent’s home. It was the first time I was aware of being in a cab that was tracked by a tracking system. And that one, which, you know, combined with my Dad’s passing, and that aspect of we’re being now put in this box. That was kind of the book end of that because those two sort of captured what was going on at the time; and I would say the “Coming of Age” combined with those two really brought me to visibility in the Computer Society. And it was primarily because I helped these covert people understand themselves and the world in which they worked, better.

Abbate:

So, I want to get into your IEEE [experience]; but I kind of come back to do that; but just to make sure I understand.

Grier:

[Laughs.] Right.

Abbate:

So was your first involvement with the Computer Society through The Annals of the History of Computing?

Grier:

Yes. I’ve been a member of the ACM since I was 18 or so. I believe I am now very close to being able to get membership for life, if I put down a certain amount of money, which I’m; if it’s not much, I’m glad to do it. I had had winter simulation conference is one of their conferences, so I had been part of it then. And I knew several people who were part of it. The Computer Society is an interesting beast, in that from its founding in 1970 to 2006, it was a pretty independent organization; it didn't worry much about the IEEE. And if you look at the founding document, which is the proposal to TAB — which is Technical Activities Board, for those of you who are doing this out of context — which is written in 1968 and 1969. It’s very clear that they’re saying that this is going to be a new organization within the IEEE that’s going to operate a little more independently than the other technical societies. And in particular, it doesn’t take much putting the dots together to see how it’s a direct response to both the Garmisch Conference in the fall of 1968, and the IBM unbundling announcement. They’re talking about software prior to this, if you go to the early editions of Computer and to the Transactions on Computing, they’re hardware journals and this is clearly doing something to try and engage the software community, and to particularly that founding document makes very clear that to be a member of the Computing Society, you need not have a BS in an engineering science, which is still largely the requirement of the IEEE. The IEEE at that point is about four years old, having merged IREA and IEE in 1964; and that they expect, again because there are not a lot of computer science degrees they’re going to expect a lot of BAs in mathematics and BAs in philosophy. Once you see that and then you watch the record of the 1970s, it’s clear they’re putting money on the software business at that point and the major expansion. The Computer Society grew very quickly. It brought over many of the hardware people, but the hardware people at some level; they’ve got about 15,000 and it’s fixed forever at that point. Software grew up to about 20,000 by 1980 and continued to grow. The standards, the publications, and the conference work that they do are clearly software engineering-based. And it’s in that framework that what I’ve been calling the standard model of software engineering, because sort of the day it finally becomes codified, we start having people going but wait a moment, we need to do agile software engineering, we need to do open source software engineering, we need to do distributed software engineering; everyone starts playing off that model, and the things that play off it are on some level, more important than the model itself. But that growth is independent, so I kind of get sucked in towards the tail end of that rise; the work that the Computer Society did to build the software industry and to codify software engineering is 1970 to 1995. It ends with ISO 12027, which is the software life cycle standard. Then at that point, the Computer Society starts shifting gears a little bit, and expands by identifying a community within computer science and establishing conferences, and periodicals, and standard efforts to bring them in. We start getting pervasive coming; we start getting security coming in; we get the Arthur Show Intelligence crowd coming in during that period; there are just a number of things that step by step it identifies, and that’s 1995 to 2006. And then in 2006 the IEEE realizes that at that point, almost a third of its members don’t consider themselves IEEE members and they want to adjust to them, particularly they get a new executive director that feels we’re too independent and that we need to be unified. That’s when we get one IEEE and start a certain amount of turmoil of how we make that adjustment because we had our own budget, we made our own appointments, we operated out of an office in Los Alamitos, California — where you have been — that was far, far from Piscataway.

Abbate:

So that was going on . . .

Grier:

Yes. And Annals joining was part of it because Annals was an AFIPS publication and then AFIPS dies in 1988 with the death of the joint computer conferences and a whole bunch of other things. With that, the Annals crowd is able to get Springer to publish it. Springer doesn’t quite know what to do with it and prices it out of range of anything except research librarians, and that kills a huge chunk of the community. So with that, there are a couple of interim editors there; Mike Williams helps shepherd it into the IEEE because he’s writing for it; becomes the editor-in-chief; and then his goal is to rebuild the community within the IEEE Computer Society.

Abbate:

You started to become active, get involved with this history part, you’ve this column in 2009?

Grier:

Oh, no, it starts like 2007 or 2006.

Abbate:

So, the late [pause]

Grier:

Late OX [?].

Abbate:

The late OX, you become very visible.

Grier:

Yes.

Abbate:

And you became president elect in 2004. Did you hold office before?

Grier:

I was vice president of publications, which is still to my mind — I loved being president — but still, I think the most good I did was during that two-year period of being vice president of publications. First off, I’m a writer so publications are important to me.

Abbate:

This is 2010?

Grier:

This is 2009 and 2010, because after I’m editor of the Annals — it’s a four-year term — I said to Robin Baldwin, who is our staff contact, that I would really like to continue doing stuff. I thought, and she will vouch for me, I thought it would be cool to be on the publication board if that was a possibility, and I thought maybe someday I could be in charge of the magazine portfolio. The IEEE divides, rather arbitrarily, magazines from Transactions; the big difference between the two is the amount of money and editing going into it. Magazines get color, they get photographs, they get a real editor who does copy editing; Transactions do not, and Proceedings get even less than that. I thought it would be really cool to be the head of magazine publication because Computer and Software, those are the two big ones; but Pervasive Computing, certainly, Security and Privacy, are major influences in their field. The graphics magazines at the time were; I think they have lost some of that influence because who’s going to do a graphics magazine? [Laughs.] You’re going to do it online. But they were influential and I thought there were things I could do. In fact during my tenure at Annals; it was one of the brief periods when Annals circulation went up. It went up during Mike’s period, then it kind of plateaued, and kind of did a slow decline; then I was able to get about a 15 percent kick out of it. Robin said that probably those goals were well within reach, and I thought yeah, maybe; but I found myself the next year on the publications board. I really enjoyed working with it; enjoyed those sorts of problems. How do you get new publications started? How do you fix old ones? When do you decide that the field has shifted and the publication needs to be turned upside down and changed? And during our time on the pubs board we were experimenting with electronic publications. We had taken a magazine on concurrency, which no longer made sense because that had moved into distributed and parallel computing, and tried to transform it to an online journal. That was really our first experience with online publication and it was premature in a couple of ways. The community was not quite ready to support it but we learned a great deal about how to do that, and at some point, we looked at it and said good money after bad and we pulled the plug. The second one, which came to a head when I was vice president of pubs, we published a magazine called Design and Test, which was overwhelmingly a hardware journal. It was during the 1960s and 1970s, through — without loss of generality, let’s just call it the IBM cloning era, which is, what 1991? — the cloning of the IBM PC, or more specifically, the clone of the AT, which became a very common technology for the first five or six years of the 1990s. That periodical was really important because it was the tools that people had to build clones of the AT. And it had a huge circulation, lot of resources, lot of contributions. By 2007, that era was over. The tools for debugging integrated circuits were not covered by it; they’re their own bag and that was in a different periodical. They didn’t deal with software debugging, which I felt was a mistake; certainly was moving forward. Increasingly, there wasn’t a call for debugging mother boards and other ICs. So we started thinking [about] plans of what do you do with it? We sort of; we ended up transferring it. I got the reputation, perhaps falsely, of the only IEEE officer that has ever killed a publication. It was actually transferred to the Circuits Society, retitled, and merged into their portfolio. So they got some assets out of it and certainly having a longer history in the electronic library is important for indexing outside and get publications. But that was a hard decision because it killed a community; killed is wrong; it . . .

Abbate:

Seemed to be an ongoing demise.

Grier:

. . . it stressed the community and forced some leaders out who didn’t want to go where the community needed to go. We built it with new leadership that didn’t know the old ones so well. It still works, but it was a hard decision and guiding that community was much of my vice presidency. I feel very pleased with how that came out and the work of doing it. Particularly I remember walking — at Los Alamitos there’s a middle school more or less across the street from the Computer Society — walking around the middle school with first the Editor-in-Chief, and then the Editor-in-Chief and his two associate editors; talking about this and why the status quo was not good and was not going to help them, and the likely outcomes of the status quo when that Editor-in-Chief reached the end of his term we’d just kill it, whereas now we had assets, we had maneuverability and that window was about 18 moths, and so let’s do something with it, and so it will change. Just walking around, around the building as they tried to understand it; you know, getting past the shock and then the anger, and trying to tap into that place which lies in all engineers, which is how to you solve the problem? [Laughs.] Because that’s what engineers do, they solve problems. And when you get them to that point and they get excited, they get moving even if they know that it’s going to disrupt their lives. I got them to that point, or they got themselves to that point and we started problem solving and found a solution. I’m very pleased with that outcome.

Abbate:

So is that how you see administration, kind of as an engineering problem?

Grier:

No, I don’t, because I’m not an engineer, really. My trade clearly is mathematics and interdisciplinary work. But also as a manager, you know, I did the Harvard administration summer program and that sort of underscored everything I’d learned from corporate life and everything I’d practiced, that it’s a variety of skills in which, to engineers, you know, getting it into the right system and then understanding how that system works, and projecting it forward and perhaps modifying it to get the result you need is the key thing. There’s the politics, there’s the human side, there’s the setting up the economics, right? All of that is management and all of that is administration. In particular, you know, in honors I faced a couple of interesting problems from the start. If you remember the early 1990s was one round of the academic wars; particularly the dead white male canon, which apparently, has revisited itself this summer in the New York Times, which I find interesting. When I became director of the honors program, we had a fight about it. We had a group of liberal arts professors who felt that we were not doing enough to teach our students the canon of Western civilization. And we had a couple departments, English and History being the leaders, that felt that we needed to open up and that the world was broader. I faced the additional problem, in that; and I don’t know this for certain, but I believe at least two English profs applied for honors director and that they had gotten support from their department and the department largely believed that I was unqualified. That may not be true but I found myself very quickly in a fight with the English department about several of the honors courses which were University of Chicago Mortimer Adler Great Books courses. In working on it and trying to negotiate between them and several of the conservatives were on the honors board, chemistry seems an odd place to defend the Western canon, but it was at GW. Trying to find a solution and working back and forth, and getting allies, at some point inspiration — I don’t want to really claim complete credit for it; I certainly articulated it but I’m sure I gleaned it from people I was talking with and from various discussions — I said okay, dead white male; male’s the first to go because you’ve got to have Jane Austen, you’ve got to have Emily Dickinson. There’s woman’s point of view that we miss and that is as much a part of the world as anything, and I said, that’s over dead stuff. Second, we’re not really talking about Western civilization we’re talking about industrialized civilization, stealing that from Anthony Giddens, that modernity is around the systematic production of goods and services, which may harken to my engineering background, for all I know. But it seemed to be that broadened, too, and that gave us a little bulwark against some of the things that were most offensive to the conservatives I had to defend myself against. And then I said okay, I also get the white; because first off, in the U.S., James Baldwin, for example, has to be included in the canon. We have to include [Chenoa Crebbin ? 1:33:44] in the canon, and that started pushing it out; and in particular, we had to have a lot of Japanese literature at that point — being married to an expert in Japanese law — so I felt there were things that we needed to include from Asia, but then I drew the line and I said, “But dead I can grasp.” So we’re going to name this course “Dead People and Mortal Ideas” and the requirement is that we’re only to teach authors who are dead, or very ill, or we believe have been dead for some time.

[Laughter.]

And so I was able to spin that, after I got a number of people like the English department chair and a couple key faculty members on board, and a couple history departments; and a key player from philosophy, the philosophy chair, who I thought was going to be one of the most conservative ones I dealt with. Dead People and Mortal Ideas, and that saved me, but it was not; it was all of those things, and then once I did it I was able to expand it and had to put a budget together, and the whole kind of things of how do you move it big [?] into the university? We had bought a new campus, how do we move it over into the new campus, and other things that are not really engineering issues.

Abbate:

Or are they?

Grier:

[Big sigh.] I mean, they are, and we get a little narrow when we talk about, you know, designing break plates and circuits and other things; but the big aspect that gives engineering its great success is its ability to put things in a box and once you say it’s in the box, you don’t need to deal outside the box. I think the challenge that engineers have as managers, and that the skill that they have to learn when they move out of it, is to realize that you never have a box and that you have to work in a world where you’re getting forces coming at you that you don’t anticipate at any point or time. I mean, the honor program during my period, was under constant pressure, sometimes more than others, of not being a liberal arts program; not being under the Columbian College. And I had the vice president backing me — I had served under two of them — that he wanted it for all and I articulated time and time again that we don’t do liberal arts, we do interdisciplinary work. We are grateful that some of them are counted as liberal arts by the liberal arts college, but if they’re not, we will go ahead with them and we don’t call them liberal arts. And that, for a time, worked; and towards the end of my term there, it didn’t and there were a bunch of things — I did not quite 10 years in that job — there were a bunch of things that said it was time to move on. One of the things is [that] at some point, you do all you can with a program and all you can do is make it more complicated. And that certainly was it. And writing was going really well, and my vice president said you’re either going to stumble along as an amateur at this, or you’re going to take a year off and you’re going to be good. And I did. And that was it. But towards the end of that, the pressure came that this is a liberal arts program and no matter what he calls them, they’re liberal arts. That’s always there, and I think that’s a kind of challenge that engineering per se does not train you to deal with.

Abbate:

At what point did you end up at the Elliott School of International Affairs?

Grier:

There was an intermediate period there. As my time at honors was coming to an end there was a question of what department was I in. the Columbian College, liberal arts college had me in none, because they didn’t have a computer science program. They checked some of the obvious ones, math and statistics, and neither of them felt I was qualified. That’s fine, they’re allowed to make that judgement. They put out a call to departments that might be interested in me, and music took a bite. I pursued it for a while, because I very much enjoy music. If I was skilled at it I would’ve become a musician, but I’m not. In seventh and eighth grade or so, I had, as many young men did at the time, I had a garage band that I played in. None of us were good except the bass player, who is a guy named Chris Brown, who is no relation to the rap singer Chris Brown at all. Chris was good, and Chris is now string bass player for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Chris during that time went up to Interlochen for summer camp. He’s probably a year or two older than I am, so he’s like in high school and I’m in junior high. He comes back and the world has changed and he’s never going to play with us again. [Laughs.] He met real musicians, and in particular, he met two musicians named Darius and Chris Brubeck, sons of the jazz pianist. He was never going to play with me again, ever. [Laughs.] So music made some sense and I thought maybe I could put together a production program. We pursued it and I was still working on When Computers Were Human, and that I was clearly going to pursue; and the pieces didn’t fit. So I went to the chair and said it’s just not working; and I went to the engineering school, which by that point, had reorganized itself. Our engineering school was reorganized from this kind of odd, quirky form in which civil engineer was; it was civil and mechanical, electrical engineering, and operations research; kind of those three departments. And operations research came from the time that it had massive contracts from the Navy, largely to host Navy OR people who were working at the Pentagon and other places. So it was an interesting department; and we were broken up and were structured in a more conventional way; a civil department, a mechanical department, an electrical department, a computer science department, and a program called engineering management. So I went to the engineering school and they said we’ll talk to you in computer science. I talked with them and they took me — and I’m grateful for that — but they thought my education was sufficient [insufficient?] for them. I always got the feeling that they were glad to have me, they were building, but they kind of viewed me as just an extra body, an extra faculty member but no one who was going to help make their reputation. And that’s fine; I certainly had; you know coming from an honors program, that didn’t do it. The school quickly grasped that I’d been program director there, and they needed help with student affairs in the school, so they made me the Dean of Student Affairs; just walking in. I think in hindsight, there were more problems with that decision than I thought. The big one is I had no political base at all. I did that for two years; it was fine; I found myself fighting everybody. Because of the restructuring they had fired two deans prior to that point. The school was in turmoil and student affairs was not necessarily a good place to be. The whole dean’s office of that period ended up leaving. The dean became president of Polytechnic of Hong Kong, where he still is; and the other deans moved on. I, at that time, was working to make sure that I had good contacts with all the associate deans of all the schools, because engineering was so teeny that we couldn’t get anything done by ourselves. During that time, the associate dean of the international affairs school and I became friends; and he was aware that my school just wasn’t working the way it was. He said I’ve got a deal for you; we are the strongest school at the university; we have the greatest number of faculty and research; and if you go to the amount of books they churn out, it’s just tremendous. He said we have trouble getting people taking dean’s jobs. Typically, the only people that want it are those who are not qualified or will do badly; and the ones we want are writing a book and consulting with the State Department, which we want them to do. Why don’t we bring you over as the new associate dean? In particular, he had done like three terms as associate dean without a sabbatical. It looked good and I talked with the group. They had a space policy program that’s the only one in the country that deals with managing NASA. They were glad to have me, and they were thinking their founding director was on his way out to retirement, and they thought it would be good to broaden and getting someone in cyber policy, as they said, was good. I knew nothing about cyber policy, but they were good people, they were glad to have me. It looked like a more congenial place to write from and so I resigned the deanship there and resigned the program and moved over. I had five years as associate dean for academic affairs there, which was a very natural fit from what I did. Again, I learned the lessons that; I think I had a successful run there. Certainly got some interesting things done in terms of rehabbing the curriculum and readjusting some of the programs so that the graduate and undergraduate programs were more or less the same thing. But it was clear I was not one of them and was grateful for the time there, and did it; and when the term came, the new dean very much wanted a political scientist for the chair, and I said thank you, and moved on.

Abbate:

But you’re still in the school.

Grier:

I’m still in the school, yes. And I teach a thing called cyber policy, which gets good enrollments, and is about all the cyber challenges, all the issues that computing has with governments. I would say it’s less of a real policy course, and a little more of political theory; political and Anthony Giddens is important to my life. [Laughs.] A little of sociological theory, and a lot of current events; and that makes sense. And then I run the capstone course, the master’s thesis course, which is just like being editor of a journal and I’m very good at that. So I do that, and then I teach the honors program at the undergrad level.

Abbate:

I seem to remember seeing something where you were using crowdsourcing for; is that a policy or something? Does it come together in some way?

Grier:

No, no; I’m; oh, yes and no. The great thing about being an expert in technology and forms of work in the school is no one is quite sure what it is but it sounds important and they give you a certain amount of leeway. Work also seems to fit in with the development group or the international econ group, and they’re very supportive. They’re aware it’s not econ and it’s not development, but it seems to support both so they like it. I have taught a course on crowdsourcing and the future of work; and I do it with the mechanical Turk group in Seattle, and some of their engineers are product managers who teach over Skype; I’ll pull in people from some of the industry in Silicon Valley. It’s outrageous fun. I don’t know what kind of a course it is, but I do make them read things like Tom Malone’s The Future of Work, so it has a business basis. I do make them read Anthony Giddens, because he’s the sociologist I most like; they can read Adam Smith and Babbage, so there’s a historical bent to it; and then we’re using the mechanical Turk app to put together a business model, so it’s a lot of different things. And it’s great fun. And because of the different things, I only get about six or seven kids. [Laughs.]

Abbate:

[Inaudible.] We have to talk about the IEEE, your rise to presidency.

Grier:

[Laughing.] Yeah, we do.

Abbate:

We talked about some of the leadership issues you dealt with on your vice presidency of publications, so it seems to lead up naturally to; I don’t know if you don’t want to think about why you; did someone ask you to run for president? Or did you want to do it yourself?

Grier:

There is, as you can imagine, and this is common in a lot of professional groups. There’s an inner core of volunteers that are deeply committed to the organization and from whom a large number of the leaders are drawn, and who are always quite active in identifying potential leaders and making sure someone runs it. You could view it as inner clique if you wanted to be nasty about it, and I can’t put that on them; they’re very honest and good group who love the organization very much. Mike Williams is part of that group and Mike Williams, for those of you listening at home, was editor of the Annals before me and pulled me in. And Mike got to be president in 2006 or so, and he claims that I went to a meeting with him and we had breakfast together and said did I have any questions about the Society and I asked how do I get your job? I can’t believe that I quite said it that way; I certainly said how can I get more responsibility in the Annals? That I certainly said because I was interested and it was helping me do what I wanted to do. After I come off the Annals, and after I’d gotten a year on the publications board, I get an e-mail from the nominations committee, which he may have been the chair that year, asking me to run for the board of governors. I e-mailed back saying sure, but I don’t believe that I’m going to be elected; I just don’t have that kind; I’m not an engineer and I’m not part of it. And whoever was chair, whoever was doing the correspondence, said no, we just need good people and you’ve been identified, and I’m almost certain it was Mike. I put my name in, and the column had been going for a bit, and certainly the column about Coming of Age had been published by then, and I believe the column about my Dad had been published, too, and I surprised myself by being on the top of the vote getters. I don’t believe I was number one; I believe Liz Bird beat me to that; but I was an easy victory and that surprised me. And then the board work was board work; and I knew a great deal about it from honors and other work that I had done. So it fit very naturally and the board does represent that core of volunteers who are very committed and very dedicated in their service, and I felt that I could add to it. In particular the things that I do add, articulating what they’re trying to do; time and again at the board meeting, someone would do something and I would stick up my hand and say could I re-articulate it and see if this is what you’re saying. I quickly got a reputation for that, of being the one that expressed; and I found myself talking for the board, talking for the society, being asked to do some things like I had done with [inaudible 1:50:31] engineering dean; I did a lot of recruiting for engineering dean. And in particular, one of the things I did was talking to the rest of the university about what engineering did. One of the things that engineering had complained about was that no one recruited students for them, and so they said you must go and do it. I said no, that’s stupid, because I can’t cover everything. So I got all the university recruiters together, I took them to the engineering school, and in particular I took them to some experiment or some demonstration for each of the major departments that I had figured out and worked out because while I am not an engineer but I do have an uncanny urge to push buttons and see what happens. So because of civil engineering we had a big concrete testing program and so I know how to make concrete samples explode. I know how to wire up, using an old PC and a bunch of 1940s genre sensors, a lie detector; and a bunch of other things. So I took these recruiters, who are generally young alums, older students, and a few professionals through and I gave them a story to tell about each of the departments. And they went off and they told the stories. It’s so cool you can do this. The faculty at first grimaced because of some of the things I had taught them. The computer science program, we had taken the old program, the game of Life, and we had messed with it. We had gotten in there and modified code, and changed colors, and did things so it flashed and the thing behaved in bizarre ways, and they hadn’t realized what impact they could have. They said this isn’t modern computer science, show them this. I’m going no, no, no, they have to have done it. For electrical engineering we did a thing where we did a binary counter with a chip. Again, they had done it, it was old school, and they went ‘round and they told these stories and these brought kids in that we had never seen and numbers we had never seen before. So at the IEEE, that’s more or less what I did; I told the stories they wanted to tell, and that very quickly moved me to the fore; had a bunch of committee service; and moved me up to the IEEE level and got me in committee service there. And then, as the second year of my vice presidency is midway through, a group of this inner core said would you like to run for president? I had seen this coming — I’d be dissembling if I said otherwise — and I had been wondering what would it be? I’m not one of them but I’m very sympathetic towards them. Would I be able to make it work? I kind of concluded that I could at least try. I felt very much that I was, in terms of my computer readership, I was riding a wave and this might never come again. I thing I was also benefitted by the fact that I was at that point, sort of in the inner core, where there was a bit of a hole that they didn’t have; normally they’d have two or three people from their group who were interested in running for president and were all qualified. I don’t think they had that. So I put it in and I ran; I had done a lot of writing for a number of candidates prior to me, and I just applied that to what I did and won handily. I can just remember them calling me and saying, you won; and going, okay. What am I going to do with this? It came right at the same time that the IEEE independently and completely unknown to me, made me a fellow. IEEE fellow is a very prestigious thing within the organization. People who have a fellows pin wear it all the time. It’s really given to people who’ve done that one article that influences others; that’s what people get it for; and I have it. In talking a little bit with the fellow committee, at that level; again, what what made me feel good is that every year the IEEE committee will identify a couple of people that have really contributed to the IEEE in non-standard ways and put them up, and usually choose one or two for fellow status; you’re the one that got it this year for that; contributing in a non-standard way. So I’m very honored for that, but again, now here I am marching into this and the question is what do I want to do?

Abbate:

So were there particular issues that were there that you had to tackle; problems or new initiatives?

Grier:

Oh yes there were; there was a whole bunch of things. The impact from 2006 was still very much with us; 2006 there were not so much government changes as government enforcement. I believe it was 2006, it may have been 2005, it may have been 2007, I was not in on the inner circle at this point. IEEE sent its lawyers to tell us how the bylaws worked and why, no matter what we thought, we were not an independent organization and why there were going to be changes in administration that the board of governors could not block. That caused tremendous row, including people claiming they were going to protest and go to jail over it. I don’t think that would’ve happened but there’s the issue of spending money. As part of those changes, one of which was restructuring how societies got money from their various activities. And in the IEEE there are three money making activities; standards, conferences, and publications. And they are roughly equal pots of money, although fundamentally, periodicals and publications have been the big money or the one with the highest margins; and conferences had not. But what had happened to computer science in1988 when the joint conference fell apart, computer science kind of fractured in the 1990s, and it’s also with the rise of software and the various divisions within software. Conferences went from being big, massive things as they were with the joint IEEE ACM Computer Conference, to very teeny things, fifties and sixties, and a big conference was 400. There are exceptions to that — SIGCHI, SIGGRAPH, things like that — but most of them weren’t and by nature of IEEE, the Computer Society had a lot of them, we had 260, and that meant we earned a lot of money. And with publications it was the same thing. At the time, the IEEE had somewhere close to 100 periodicals and we had 35 of them. On standards, we had responsibility for, and still do, the biggest standards money maker of all of them is the wifi standard. So we were financially in very strong position but the IEEE, in trying to centralize control, changed the allocation of funds to societies, and that meant publications went from running a surplus, in the sense that we got a huge surplus from it; it went to running a deficit. Now, it still made a lot of money, it’s just we got a lot less money out of it. The same thing happened with standards; I don’t believe we currently get any money from 802 anymore; and that’s the wifi standard, for those of you listening at home. Conferences still got a lot for us, but we had done with conferences what IEEE had done with us; we had set them up as independent activities. And conferences do get an inner core of a dozen or so people that guide it, and they it is very tempting because they have a huge amount of power over a community, and a huge amount of status. Many of the groups use it well, or many of them when they use it badly use it in relatively minor bad ways. They blow their entire surplus on dinners and things like that at the conference, for the inner elite, where they order expensive wine. They do a lot of work and I’m not sure I begrudge them all that much, but some of them had built up large surpluses and were using that to start activities of their own; to doing, if you will, sub-societies and we were one, needing to bring that back together to structure to meet the goals of IEEE: and second, of our conferences on our subgroups, about half of them no longer represented vibrant and productive research communities. This is something that I really learned in my IEEE community; I have come to believe that for most professors, most technical professors, they have one or two good ideas. The lifespan of research that they can get from those one or two good ideas is about seven years an idea. So most good researchers can get a 15-year major contribution to the field out of it, and after that, they’re kind of in mopping up stage. I did a number of interviews of senior researchers, in particular Furber — whose first name now temporarily leaps from thought — who did the ARM processors. His design of the ARM processor was his first really good idea and went a certain way and you see in his publication works that he’s mopping things up, he’s doing different implementations of it, he’s not going anywhere with it. And then he leaps into neural nets, has to completely retrain [inaudible]. It takes about three or four years, and then he puts the neural nets together with his silicon design work and he gets a second life that’s about 10 years long. We wouldn’t have smart phones without our processors that combine the processing power with a lower power consumption; and we really wouldn’t have viable large scale classification neural nets without his work there. And it’s rare that someone makes that kind of big contribution. So when you see these communities, they too have a life that is sometimes seven or 10 years long, at max. If you read the proceedings of them — and I have lots and lots of proceedings of things — you see them fumbling around for a little for two or three years, and then they kind of have their ideas together, and their concepts, and their categories; and there are like three big papers back to back, bap bap bap. And then the students of those authors and the friends of those authors fill out the community behind it and that takes six or so years, but unless they’ve had an infusion of new blood and ideas, those communities can often go stagnant because they can’t really generate the new ideas internally. They either need a student who stands up and says wait, I’ve got a whole new way of doing it, and turns it upside down; or they bring in new talent. Unless you see that happening systematically, they don’t, and so the question I had to face as president — and again, this may be a very long twisted way of getting there but for those of you who have not read my essays, you’ll understand that’s how I write — how do you have a more agile group? And in particular, we needed a way of creating communities and killing committees quickly. These subcommittees — periodicals, publications, and we have a group called technical activities that are related to conferences — they’re easy to start, they’re hard to kill; and particularly when a group of people have gone into it even when they’re not getting a lot at their conferences or their publications are not earning them money, the status is so important to these people; that they’re head of a community, they’re editors-in-chief — that they are very difficult politically to kill because they immediately go to all their peers and say, you’ll be next. So we put together an alternative form of community, and I had been active in that as vice president of periodicals, called the STCs, which was not what we called it originally. They’re a Special Technical Community; and we wanted to make them easy to make and easy to kill; and the easy to kill was not so much we would kill them, because that’s where the politics gets in, but they would die unless they met certain standards.

Abbate:

So they were intentionally temporary?

Grier:

Yes, intentionally temporary; and we wanted them for a bunch of purposes. To create a new periodical in the IEEE is very painful; and we wanted to say you could set up a Special Technical Community that is, in fact, a stalking horse for your first editorial board and you can do that, and you can get the whole thing together, and we cannot guarantee that that board will go over to be the editorial board, but if you play your cards right it’s yours to lose. We did several very successful things like that. We also said that they didn’t need to be formed necessarily around a technical subject. They could be geographic, they could be industry-based, or some other community that made sense. So we had a social ethical group that ran for a while; we’ve had several gender-based ones that have run; but the idea being that we did not expect these to be permanent. We wanted a way for them to be permanent; we wanted a way for them, if you wanted to, if it was 10 of your friends doing something and it made sense, that was fine, you could have 10 friends but we’re giving you a web page and that’s about it. So it was supposed to be a very flexible thing.

Abbate:

Easy come, easy go.

Grier:

Easy come, easy go, and also the thousand flowers bloom. Right now, we have got 30 or 40 or them that are a group of friends who get together, but they don’t get any money from us so we don’t care. That required a great deal of things because each of the units felt threatened by it. In particular, there’s some groups that felt — because part we thought we might want to do it — that they’d get moved into Special Technical Communities and then they’d be left to wither and die. In particular, there are a couple of the periodical kind of groups, and the conference groups that really aren’t that active and I think that’s the next step. But we put it together, I did the original drafting as the VP of Pubs, for the president, and then when I became president, I put it together in a very light form. Excuse me, before I became pubs; that it was easy to put in and basically told everyone that if it didn’t work, it’s going to expire and it will die. It did one of the things we had hoped for which was attracting all the little groups that had no representation, and we got a couple periodicals out of it. That put everyone at ease, particularly when they saw a group that had been an STC become an editorial board, and the STC still kind of remained but the action was at the editorial board. I drafted the governance changes in my pre-presidency year and then as president it was the first thing we got through. That was the key thing there. And then the other thing was not one I’d planned. There was a lot of work — and this had been started by presidents before me — of representing us to the IEEE, of making sure we were represented in it; and at some level my presidency is perhaps towards the end of the transition that began not in 2006, but maybe 2008 or 2009, of becoming just another technical society of the IEEE, that we were no longer special and independent. But that means that you have to have representation there because the leadership of the IEE is drawn heavily from the communication society, which is the next biggest one after us; and then power and energy, which is the next biggest one after them; and the signal processing society. While we have more in common with communications and signal processing, we don’t with power and energy. They have sort of a disproportionate weight, in part I think, because they’re in fact the AIEE still, and they’re also very active because it’s their professional society in a way that computer science can go elsewhere. So we did a lot of work being visible to the IEEE, taking on IEEE roles, as vice president of pubs I had joined the pubs committees of the IEEE and I had undertaken a complete top to bottom review of all 35 of our periodicals plus an additional group of periodicals of the IEEE. So certainly I made a mark there and because of that a bunch of tasks came my way that I did not plan for. Student work; IEEE acquired — and I don’t know what acquired means, people say purchased — an engineering honor society, Theta Kappa Nu, which I believe used to be just a standalone Greek society and it’s now being managed by the IEEE. Buying it seems an odd thing; bailing it out I could get, because I’ve seen that happen. So somehow, we acquired it and I got pulled into that because the head of it had seen one of the talks I had given and thought that it would appeal to students, and I feel I do fairly well with them; and there’s a series on their website of pictures of me holding court for like six hours in the lobby of one of the conferences with a group of these young engineering students basically asking the question, how do we become leaders? And me doing the honored Socratic Method, how do you think? What do you think? What does engineering bring to it? What will you need beyond engineering? What’s the one skill you think you need beyond engineering? Why might that not work? Why might budgeting work? You now, back and forth. That pulled me into that group and I did a lot with it. I also, because of speeches had; there’s a bunch of IEEE television things that I did where I talked about the value of it and in particular, there’s one that’s kind of an improvised essay that is “What is the IEEE mean to me?” I said it gave me my career back. It’s the idea that when computer science ended at GW, I had built a career around computing, around my background, but this pulled me back into the professional community the way I could not have done by myself. I’m pleased with it and I wish I had written it up. That kind of thing brought me out and brought more speaking opportunities. And then because of the IEEE budget issue, we were working really hard to develop new lines of business. So I, again for the same reason, was called in to promote them; in particular one that was around our software engineering body of knowledge, that body of information about software that after we finished the standard in 1995 started putting together. It ends up being published about 2002 and during my presidency we put together a revision of it. It’s basically all the core body of knowledge of software engineering. Any software engineering text, if it’s a real one, would use that as its backdrop because why do you need to do the research when you can get this document. It includes all the articles from all of our periodicals, all of the categorizations, all the processes that you do, and it’s available online for free at swebok.org [Software Engineering Body of Knowledge]. We were selling education processes, certification processes, and I did a lot of selling of that. I was on the road; I had two trips a month during my presidency; and about every other trip was a long haul out of the U.S. I did four trips to India and there were very few places in India back then, other than Gujarat [?]. [Inaudible 2:12:01]. When there’s a tea shop in Bangalore where you’re known as the crazy American who likes chai tea without sugar, because as we know, in south Asia, tea is eight tablespoons of sugar, a swat of hot water, and some tea mixed in, and I believe tea should be bitter; you know you’ve been there a few times too many. As part of that also, I got — as dean of the international affairs school, I had traveled to many of these countries before and I had contacts at universities before, so in part because of that, the IEEE figured that out they wanted to use that and one of the groups they wanted to make stronger connections to were the Chinese computing organizations. GW has a relationship with Fudan University in Shanghai and I had been there a couple of times; and I had been to Xidian, and had contacts at Beijing University Post of Telecommunications in Jiaotong, and others; and all of a sudden they realized that and I’m also going back to China a lot, and I’m some kind of corresponding member of the Chinese Computing Federation. Part of it is to talk about what’s the value of working with us. In India, we had put together a special thing where because of the difference in purchasing power parity — in India you have to get a membership for about 10 bucks a person, otherwise you’ll never get anywhere — there was a fairly easy sell about why you want to work with us, because that brings you into the world community. In particular, India is really good at producing two types of people; basically website developers, and major contributors to the field who edit journals and produce fundamental ideas and dominate Silicon Valley. It doesn’t have as strong a base in the middle and that was what we were pitching, that this can help bring your base by helping them develop more midlevel skills. China’s a different bear altogether because like Japan, it’s isolated. The read a certain amount of the English literature, but not much; and they don’t publish as much as it looks like in the IEEE or in the ACM. There’s a very real language barrier that you need to bring in and you need to make the point that part of your advancement is having a dialog with these other communities, and as long as you are on the outskirts — like several technical projects they had done such as the standards they’ve adopted for cell phones and standards for the internet — you’re going to end up being in a place where you can’t advance because the rest of the world has marched on. I can point to Japan as easily being in that circumstance. Japan, in the 1980s, was the dominant player and it frightened the U.S. substantially and some of it frightened the U.S. into inventing the internet, as well you know. And when we were in Japan we had a meeting with the Information Processing Society of Japan where the Japanese leadership had to sort of muster all the courage they could get to talk to us. They asked for the meeting and they said we have got two journals, two Japanese language journals, and we can’t sustain them anymore. They’re losing money and we don’t have the reserves to hold them together and we don’t see how we can make them profitable. We’d like you to publish them bilingually. IEEE had objections to that at the time, but that started a dialog. The problem we faced as we went around Japanese universities; you saw this problem again and again; they had put barriers between them and the rest of the world. What they needed to do because the rest of the world was now so big and they were such a small contributor to it, they needed to let go. I went to the Japanese supercomputer centers, Todai, Sofia, Waseda, Tohoku, Kyoti, and you saw these barriers in operation. In particular, I asked for this and — one of the highlights of my presidency — the Japanese Information Processing Society’s annual meeting was at Tohoku University and my wife had gone to Tohoku University so she came with me. [Laughing.] We irritated the conference organizers by running off on our own to places we knew about and had visited, and mystified — there was a huge IEEE staff there at this meeting and they all went together very careful — and we’re running around meeting with her old faculty, going to restaurants that we liked. I had asked to go to the Tohoku supercomputer center and if you remember, and if you’re following this interview, during the 1980s we ran into an anti-dumping countervailing duty dispute with Japan where they were supporting their large supercomputers, their large high speed computers, which were done by Fujitsu and Hitachi. Fujitsu largely getting their technology from ANGOL, Hitachi doing it somewhat homegrown and protecting it with duties so the U.S. couldn’t get inside, and tried to undermine the U.S. by selling high speed computers below cost and one of the ways that works is if you can hide what the actual cost is. One of the centers for development of these machines was the Tohoku computer center. For a Westerner to get into that during the 1980s when I visited first, was impossible. No way that was going to happen. I said I wanted to go there because the U.S. response to this Japan threat was to point to their centers, and particularly that center, as developing this technology and supporting it, and that we needed to do the same. It leads to bills in the mid-1980s that leads to originally four and very quickly five supercomputer centers, and then at the start of the 1990s, to link all of those things with research universities and others with the technology that becomes the internet. I’m telling this to Janet Abbate, who’s nodding sagely, going he read the book, he got it right. He also lived part of it and that’s what’s going on. And you got there and they have a whole; because computers have shrunk in size you see an interesting phenomena in these big supercomputer centers. You see a lot of floor space or you see rack after rack of Blades that are largely doing IT work for somebody else. CERN is a good example; CERN still has some big stuff but it’s Blades, where they used to have Crays and CDC machines and other things; that you have things that say virtual desktops and other things that are supporting CERN and other things. CERN, by the way, this is the CERN in Geneva. I jumped subjects; this happens to me; if you have questions, call. [Laughs.]

The supercomputers don’t take the size, and this is true of Tohoku back in Japan, as well. There were Blades that were supporting industry in northern Japan, in and around Sendai, but the computing center had a bunch of Fujitsu machines tucked away in one corner that were big and powerful and made up of little teeny processors. The rest of the floor space was filled with remnants of 1980s and early 1990s machines; front panels of manual covers from back when we had physical manuals; peripheral devices that I couldn’t always identify; PC boards; disks; getting smaller and smaller. The Japanese have done, I think, a good job of collecting old stuff. There’s a Japan Computing History Museum that’s distributed across the country and is led by a bunch of senior computer scientists who have done a nice meticulous job of getting it and putting together a record of what’s there. But it’s also a little sad just to sort of walk into there and knowing that that’s not what the floor space was for, and that the shrinkage of the use of the floor space also represents the shrinkage of Japan’s part in the world computing stage. I enjoyed it; I had a good talk with the director, who was surprised I knew as much about the center as I did. But I kind of came away very much feeling that that bubble that peaked in 1991-1992 in Japan floated the end, in effect, and then started having to deal with governance problems within its research and corporate world had taken a toll, and that that is part that goes against the grain of what computer seems to have done, which is to open things up. Y9ou know the classic Tom Malone article from 1987 that says the interconnected world is not just going to be faster and sharing more data, it’s going to have different social structures. He goes on to identify three sets of social structures that he thinks are going to be there, and he gets two right; and I think he’s going for the right one on the third, he just didn’t know how to describe it. I think that’s part of what you’re seeing, and the people who put up barriers, like Japan, have trouble. When I was at that — we did that in the morning — then in the afternoon had a big banquet. By then it was time to get out that I had a long history at Tohoku and I knew my way around; in particular there’s another thing, there’s a Computer Society board member who was also a student at Tohoku University the same time my wife was. So they’re making a bit of a fuss about that, and they asked me to give a speech. I did two years of Japanese and it’s pretty much entirely gone, except for a few phrases. I got up and did it in English, and said that my wife had been here and that the city was very important to me, and that when they had the earthquake there two years prior we sat glued to the television hoping and praying we saw nothing we knew collapsing; and felt very close to the people there and grateful to see the recovery. But one of the things that when they say what did you take from your time in Japan, I said that one of the little things we picked up was that when you sit down to dinner you say the phrase “ta dok imasu” which translates vaguely “now I gratefully receive” and that is a sign that the meal has begun and people can eat. But it’s starting the meal with gratitude for what others have become and while there was this huge layout of food. I’d like to say idi dok imasu because I’m hungry and I haven’t had anything to eat since lunch, but I want to say ta dok imasu to you for all that we have received both of hospitality here but all that the world has received from the work that Japan did in the 1980s and early 1990s. With that, I bring from the Computer Society this phrase. People gasped when I did that; it was the gasp of how could he have thought of that? And it was a gasp of appreciation, and I had people coming up to me after that, hugging me and saying how wonderful it was, and I was really a Japanese. I was like yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m sure. But I think it was an appreciation that they had not felt in a long time and we had a meeting with their board after that, and I thought it was a great meeting and they were just bubbling over. The feeling that that had pulled them back in just a little bit; but I think also that goes to indicate that that supercomputer center and those research activities don’t have the clout that they would like them to have. Part of that is how do they engage the world as equals? And that goes into China, the Chinese Computer Federation and how do they engage the world as equals? The Chines Computer Federation’s headquarters, its offices are a floor of the building that was the original Lenovo building. And the original Lenovo building is where it is . . .

[INTERRUPTED BY CELL PHONE]

Abbate:

Not an emergency.

Grier:

Oh good. Just as long as it’s not a small child calling, going Mom, I’ve locked myself out.

Abbate:

Sometimes it’s the school.

Grier:

[Laughs.] Right. If I can finish the Chinese story; I know you’re about to jump in.

Abbate:

No [I wasn’t. Please continue.]

Grier:

They’re located in Haidian because they’re in the old LENOVO building, which is right next door to the Chinese Academy of Science’s automation laboratory number one, which is what brought computing to China from Russia. And LENOVO, of course, got spun out of that and bought the IBM unit and becomes it but it builds this whole process up. But as you go through this, you’re very aware of these things; but there are things like LENOVO is mostly a Western-style corporation, that the fingers of state-owned enterprise are long and go into almost anything. Chinese Computing Federation is close to being an independent professional society in that the board is not nominated by the party or by the government, however, about 40 percent of the board members are party members and the military has a strong presence just because they’re part of the industry. You see this interaction and you see what it’s going to take to sort of get over some of those barriers, to break them down and get a better discussion and dialog, especially when the language barriers are so very great. I think we see what happened to Japan, and it’ll be interesting to see how China plays out.

Abbate:

I’d like to ask you one question about the future and one about the past, and then; so what direction do you think the IEEE Computer Society needs to go in the future?

Grier:

A couple of things. I have lots of opinions and the one I didn’t dare act on, because I would’ve had a rebellion and we have seen rebellions against presidents in the Computer Society and it kills anything you can do. I didn’t want to be in that position. I think there’s an aspect of it in which having as its prevue all things computation hurts it because computing doesn’t work that way anymore. First off, hardware and software, while they interact with each other have very different engineering styles. One of the things I spent a lot of time doing my year was making the point that software engineering does not derive from electrical engineering, which was always a fun thing to drop at a party. And the more I did it, the more I realized that electrical engineering had splits within itself, in particular, I’m now writing for the Consumer Electronics Society and what is a consumer electronics engineer? Well, it derives very clearly from radio engineering, which much of electronic engineering does, but it derives from a very certain sliver of radio engineering in the 1920s; the sliver that made consumer radios. And if you go back and you read the literature on how those were created and how they met the marketplace, all of a sudden you see Silicon Valley unfolding before you in the oughts; grossly competitive, horribly market driven, and consuming huge amounts of capital on corporations that fail, and the fact that during that period, during the late teens, twenties, and early thirties, that the consumer radio industry was headquartered in Philadelphia is sort of a measure of both the power and the arc of that story. The fact that no one would think of Philadelphia as an electronic capital and the consumer radio industry has zero place in corporate life at this point sort of shows it; and how has the engineering class moved through that? I think in computing we’ve seen some of that happening already, but hardware engineers globally, that cohort has been flat or declining slightly, but let’s call it flat. Since around 2000, maybe a little before; software engineers have taken a couple big bumps but that’s largely from reclassification of the standard industry categories for jobs. And that, in particular, software engineering has always had non-standard educational tracks. In the 1960s it was people coming up through math and philosophy because there was nothing else. And that track actually led well into the 1990s. Now it’s open source, as a means of educating people and we’re seeing other things with our code and other groups that want to promote that. The IEEE doesn’t really, I think, want to be a player in that — it keeps talking about it — but it does stand for a certain class of engineering and a certain class of processes that it should focus on. But that would suggest a smaller society, not bigger. When I was president — before I was president — there were people who were talking about the Computer Society should have around 400,000 members and there are ways you can convince yourself of that if you start with the basic argument that there are about two million people involved in software globally. I think a lot of things slice that down; 400,000 professionals, I think that’s high. I think it’s also high in terms of them doing work that a professional society needs to support.

Abbate:

This was kind of my other thought; is the role of a professional computing society, changes, or what should that role be? Who is it serving?

Grier:

It’s fundamentally serving the knowledge and the issue in computing, there’s a hardware body of knowledge that is being maintained by a number of parts of the IEEE not just the Computer Society. And I think the pieces that we do and do well, we should break up and say you’re competing with the signal processing society or the machine intelligence society, and that you’re more comparable to them, and you need to be able to focus on it. On the software level, I think there is a centralized set of ideas on software engineering that really it’s the IEEE’s job to support; that the ACM does not do it the same way. I think that at this point is maybe a third of the society. It supports Software magazine, which to date, last I saw, is still the only truly profitable publication in the magazine portfolio. The others do make money, but it’s not a real return on investment; that one is. And has large, very vibrant conferences. I think then a number of specialized programming groups that would do well; machine intelligence, computer vision, computer graphics; pervasive and what had been growing, and is now growing quite rapidly in the Society, security and privacy. They have more in common with themselves than they have across the board, and that they might be stronger working as an independent organization. There was no stomach for doing that kind of breakup either in staff or in group; and it would be basically saying that the IEEE was the centralizing organization, not the Computer Society. But there is a side of the IEEE that has too many layers, and certainly down the computer wing it has too many layers. I can’t advocate for it and I wouldn’t advocate for it; but I think if you’re a group that’s coming up with a new idea and you’ve got a body of knowledge to develop, a body of knowledge that includes literature and certainly standards, which is another thing that IEEE does that the ACM does not; you would, I think, be better served by trying to start off on your own as a small group within the IEEE because you’ll have a little more flexibility, you’ll have fewer layers of management, and you’ll have direct access to the IEEE budget rather than going through the Computer Society. So, you know, that’s the challenge I think it faces. The other side is, again looking historically, we’re at the end of a couple of arcs. The hardware arc is clearly in one kind of end game, that once we got on the semiconductor roadmap, around 1990, we had put together a huge body of knowledge on semiconductors and processor architecture. And at that point, the game was running smaller and smaller. The road map and the targets that the popular press has come to call Moore’s Law, it’s in fact industrial planning by the road map community. There is new stuff in architecture on parallelism although some of it is shockingly familiar to the work I did in the 1908s; but it’s still new and more sophisticated than before, and it needs to be redone for the classic applications. So there’s a body of knowledge there. In software, that arc is, I think, the software engineering arc started reaching its end game probably 2007, 2008, and 2009, in that period. Now the things to be dealt with are finer points, specialized areas, and we’re seeing that generation of leadership starting to move into new things. The communications and distributed group, that’s still an active body of knowledge and I suspect that will run for another six, eight years; but that too will come to a close and we will see work needing to be done, but it’s not going to be the same kind of vigor that we’ve seen in our lifetimes. At that point, the professional society has a responsibility for maintaining that, for advancing it, but the question is will it have the same kind of activity that we have been used to and I don’t think that’s going to be the case.

Abbate:

I want to get back to history because I think the computer industry has a kind of fraught relationship with its own history. On the one hand, there are these strong myths about heroic pioneers that people want to emulate, but there’s this equally strong feeling that the past is obsolete and anyone over 30 is just a putz. And it’s not clear that people in the computer industry, the general public really know very much about the history of computing.

Grier:

No they don’t.

Abbate:

I was wondering what your thoughts are about how the computer field understands and uses its own past.

Grier:

There are a number of forces in what has happened to the computer industry, that are forces that encourage drawing a circle around themselves and not only not looking to the past — or only looking to the recent past — that you’re moving forward and at some point, you can blame it on Clay Christenson and the adoption of disruptive innovation in the early 1990s. In fact, I think there’re structural pieces of it. The complexity of computing systems that require very detailed knowledge to make work effectively has encouraged the breakup of a large number of good firms into very small ones; the ones that can keep large scale like Intel, like Microsoft, have been able to keep themselves together through a variety of forces. Intel because of the capital investment and the knowledge that you need of basic solid state physics to produce these things; that that concentration, really, there is an economy of scale there and that works. Microsoft, because it’s been able to grab a position of the market, that it needs a certain capitalization to be able to hold it. And given the number of people that are circling startups around Redmond, they could lose that. Google would obviously be the next one sort of on it that’s picking off. Oracle has a similar thing that it has been able to identify a commodity and able to develop business lines from that commodity — data bases — that have been able to support it and no one wants to do the fundamental evolutionary thing of redoing a relational data base. [Laughs.] So those are kind of exceptions. When you get to so many other things, they’re small, they’re tight, and by clearly the mid-1908s, the strategy for advancing corporations is get a team together to develop itself. You don’t do startups. The startups we celebrate, the Facebooks and the Twitters, are exceptions. The ones that really make Silicon Valley work are the ones where there’s a seven-year or so timeline that the founders, particularly the founding financiers, know that they’re getting out and they know that the real value is generating a certain amount of intellectual property that is going to be needed by somebody else, either directly or as Bell Labs learned many years ago, to keep other people out. That fracturing means that you dismiss things in the past, you dismiss lessons of the past, and we don’t have; the industry does not have a very good way of engaging that kind of expertise; the lessons that come from the past, and particularly doing the crowdsourcing work that I did from 2009 to about the time I started the presidency. I found ready audiences to talk about — the math tables project — to talk about user’s groups, which I felt needed industrial organizations that they had not seen; to talk about various non-standard forms of work. But the issue that I found is that they needed from that a certain class of lesson and they were most interested in that lesson when it both engaged what they had been talking about as organization, and went slightly counter to it. On the crowdsourcing world I met a couple of people I still am good friends with and keep in close touch with; and one I visited a couple weeks ago who’s trying to build not really a crowdsourcing world but something that organizes artistic expertise, number one, if you need artistic services, graphic design services, musical services, and it’s made its name in audio pod casting and overdub services and that’s what it’s building off of. I enjoy the founder very much and we talk about how these things have grown and things like that. It’s a history he completely has no idea about. Part of it is he’s one of the few South American entrepreneurs I know who is highly successful, and hence, didn’t come up through that tradition. But second, it involves talking about a literature, broadly speaking, that I think is missed by the community; and that literature is the sort of business technical literature that involves certain kinds of stories, certain ways of framing questions, certain categories. And right now, as I see the historical crowd, they’re not interested in that, which is fine, that’s the freedom that they have.

Abbate:

You mean the history of computing?

Grier:

The history of computing crowd, the Annals, who I obviously love dearly but they’re not going off in this direction.

Abbate:

So more the business history?

Grier:

But it’s not business history either. The current; I’m very intrigued by the current surge of the history of capitalism that’s coming out but it’s missing this crowd, too. The question is how do you get things in their categories and that’s sort of a question in my post-presidency I have been wondering about. Now that it’s officially over as of last January, it’s the thing that I’m trying to figure out how to address. How do you get broader lessons? And lessons that transcend time and space, rather than talking about history, because that sets up certain kinds of categories that they don’t care about. We’ll see how that works. You know there’s a corporate history; there are a number of histories that I think don’t particularly work right now in the technical community. The traditional corporate history that we used to do, Emerson Pugh’s work on IBM — which are lovely books — but I’m not sure a book on IBM or Oracle would meet the same sort of thing, nor could you; you know IBM ran, well really until the crisis in the 1980s, with a relatively small capital committee that you could start at that committee and then spin out the story of the global company. I think you could trace that from Microsoft to a certain point, in the community around Bill Gates, and certainly my peers from my Ph.D. work; all of the ones that ran off to Microsoft. I think they were part of it, but I think clearly, by the early 1990s that started to splinter and it’s gone now. I think the second kind of history that we saw, you know, the great person history with the titans of industry. We really only have two in which that literature has connected, you know, Gates and Jobs. And Jobs is a more interesting character study in that we use that as a type of the era, but he’s not duplicable. And Gates, who is very clearly a Peter Drucker manager guy, and coming from that, and in many ways represents a real connection to the leadership from the 1960s and 1970s, and taking and making his own in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s not as interesting a story and there’s not that much new in it. And I’m sure Bill Gates, who I met exactly once in his life, if he ever got that I would get a good letter back from him. But from what I see of the startups, it’s a different model.

Abbate:

There’s the whole Facebook thing kind of a; just in terms of [inaudible 2:45:22]

Grier:

Yes. But that’s part of the fragmenting, I think; that you can now build a community that transcends geography but is still very small and very narrow in its outlook. But, you know, the groups that I see that are outstanding, particularly those that have aspirations to actually run something rather than sell out, the question of how you go over that line, you know, the line from startup where you develop the technology, you go from proof of concept to actual product, and you have ways of delivering the product or service. And then you hope someone else will buy it and elevate it to the next level. If you want to elevate it, there are some key lessons that you need that we’re just not talking about, because that’s not per se the innovation story. It’s the entering the mature capitalist market story.

Abbate:

Interesting. So part of the reason people feel disconnected is they don’t actually see themselves going past the startup phase, they just want to be serial startup people and hope at least one of them makes it big. Is that sort of the current mindset?

Grier:

My view of startups, and this is growing [going?] around all the various you know, general assembly 1776; all of them think they’re going to become Bill Gates. But the standard model is that they develop something, and that they sell it and they get pulled into [inaudible]

Abbate:

They want Bill Gates to buy it; they don’t want to be Bill Gates.

Grier:

If you look at what the big venture capitalists are funding, and particularly what the senior leaders are funding, they’re looking at things that they can bring across that line and they are very picky in terms of the leadership. They will often [pause]

Abbate:

I think we’re getting kicked out of the room.

Grier:

Okay, it’s twelve o’clock. Alright, so much for that story.

Abbate:

Alright, well, to be continued.

Grier:

Okay.