Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I Will Not Lie Down

Turn this thing around
I will not go quietly
I will not lie down
I will not go quietly

Don Henley, I Will Not Go Quietly
I've recently been doing some work that required me to provide history about myself and the things that I'd done. Since I developed a penchant for being in the present, I haven't done a very good job at cataloging what I've done previously. So, I decided to google myself to determine my history.

Through the course of my googling I found that I'd been awarded nine patents that I was completely unaware of. One of them goes back to work I'd done with an amazing group of people back in the late 80's and early 90's at Bell Labs. I found that I'd even filed a couple of patent applications with Arno Penzias who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1978.

It was fun to research myself as a third party might and my resume now looks way cool. One of the patents I found took me back to an amazing time in the late 80's.

US Patent 5724590 - Technique for executing translated software
In the late 80's, Don Henley wrote a song that became a theme song of sorts for my advanced development group at Bell Labs. This was a point in time where the computer industry was in flux. At that point, IBM was still a computer company that owned the mainframe market and created the PC market. The Apple Macintosh was a relatively new entry in the fray, and a long gone company call Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) owned half of Massachusetts and most of the mini-computer market.

AT&T had recently divested itself of the operating companies that were called the "baby bells". At that time, these companies were named New England Telephone and Illinois Bell and so on. They went on to become companies like Verizon, Cingular and Qwest. The reason AT&T had let go of these subsidiaries was so that it could launch new businesses focused on the burgeoning computer market. Unfortunately, the business minded folks at AT&T had no clue about the computer market. At a point in time where the leaders of AT&T Computer Systems might have purchased either Apple or National Cash Register (NCR) to get into the computer business for about the same price, they purchased… well, they purchased NCR. Sigh…

That Ain't Squat
Anyway, my group of seven engineers had been working on what would have been the next generation computer for AT&T. We had an operating system developed at Bell Labs called UNIX and a new processor developed by a company called MIPS which was later purchased by Silicon Graphics which became the computing engine for many of the high-end special effects companies in Hollywood (movies like True Lies and Apollo XIII). I had a an amazing visionary boss who said, "In order to have a computer that can win as a late entry into the computer market, it's not enough for it to run UNIX applications (of which there were few); it must also run all Windows and Macintosh applications!!"

Now, he was an amazing visionary with a great ability to inspire and somehow manage technology mavericks, but he had no clue as to how he might accomplish this. So, we set out, it never occurring to any of us that it was impossible, just something that we didn't yet know how to do.

As we developed our new computer, we came up with a system that could literally translate the software running on one system and run it on a completely different system in a way where it was impossible for anyone to see any differences. For example, we could run Macintosh applications and Windows applications and Unix applications all on the same computer at the same time.

Now, this isn't like the virtual machines of today that let you run say Windows on a Macintosh. The systems today count on both systems using fairly similar architectures (for example the same processor). In this case, the hardware systems were completely different from one another. (For fellow geeks out there, one was running on Intel x86, another on Motorola 68xxx and yet another on the MIPS R3000.) The other really cool thing was that our translated applications ran much faster after translated than before translated, i.e., our virtual applications ran about 5-times faster than the originals. Even today, the virtual applications are never quite as fast as the originals.

In addition to this, we developed all sorts of advanced media processing capabilities, text readers, voice processing and so on. It was an amazing time and there seemed little we couldn't do. Our little desktop machine could do the work of many computers and was more powerful than a Cray supercomputer.

We called our new computer squat so that no one could say, "That ain't squat."

Everyone Wanted to Help
As word of our little project started to spread, different people began knocking on our door to see if they could help us. It turns our there were whole research departments dedicated to different pieces of what we had done, departments dedicated to speech processing technologies, departments focused on reading text, departments focused on new operating systems, departments focused on compiler technologies (the technology basis for translating applications).

However, in many instances, the offers of help were in fact suggestions that we not use the technology that we had developed, but instead, use the technology developed by the various "helping" organizations. Some of these suggestions were made quite strongly to the point of being perceived as demands. I started to learn about the politics of academia and research.

Essentially, no one believed that a small group of just seven people could have accomplished as much as had and that we should avail ourselves of the work of these much larger organizations. We were open to doing so, but only if what was there actually worked and worked better than what we had. We didn't find much evidence of that and said, "Thank you, no."

Oops... next thing you know, we were the subject of a technology audit by some really high-powered people from the research organization. It was their job to review what we'd done and see whether or not it was real. It was fascinating.

The Inquisition
So one afternoon we were visited by an amazing group of people including Al Aho, Peter Weinberger and Brian Kernighan (the namesake of the Unix program AWK), Larry Rabiner who ran the speech research lab, and Arno Penzias (the head of Bell Labs Research). We walked them through everything that we'd done providing demonstrations, presentations and fielding questions.

To say that these guys really knew their stuff would be a bit of an understatement. They asked specific and insightful questions about various aspects of the project and gave up little in the way of the impressions they were taking away. As we progressed through the afternoon, the folks on our team would check in with one another wondering how things were going.

Finally, as we gathered around a monitor for one of the final demonstrations, Peter Weinberger leaned over to me and softly said, "You know, this is really impressive."

I felt as though I'd been holding my breath for three hours and had finally exhaled. My whole body relaxed in a way that let me know that I'd been carrying a lot of tension.

We were officially audited and approved.

Project Canceled
At the end of 1990 going into 1991, AT&T purchased National Cash Register (NCR) for $7.5 billion. The idea was to quickly enter the computer business by purchasing a cash register company; it ended up decreasing the wealth of AT&T shareholders by between $3.9 billion and $6.5 billion. Anyway, when AT&T made the acquisition, they decided that we didn't need to be developing new computers anymore and to "redeploy" the members of our team.

It was a really amazing group that had a great working chemistry and I had no intention of disbanding it. I made various appeals up the chain of command to no avail. As the deadline approached, I found another organization within the company that had defined some new, funded projects that desperately needed a strong working team with the kinds of skills my team had. Without asking permission, I transferred each of them to that organization.

A few weeks after the transfer was effected, I sat in my office the lone remaining member of my team on the organization chart. My phone rang. When I answered, I heard the voice of the executive assistant to our senior vice president talking into what was clearly a speaker phone surrounded by other people. He said, "Mark, I want you to think very carefully before answering the following question. How is that your team ended up in thus-and-such organization?"

I wasn't particularly good at taking advice, and without hesitation I said, "Because I transferred them there?"

Life After Life
Well, eventually they got over it and I ended up getting a job in the basic research group thanks to the new relationships I'd established through our technology audit. AT&T later ended up selling of NCR and exiting the computer business and then being purchased by one of the operating companies that it had dumped years earlier.

My team ended up doing some amazing work creating a system that was purchased by Apple to move many of their applications from the Motorola 68xxx to the PowerPC and I had a grand time in the research group.

It was nice to think about those times and remind myself of not lying and not going quietly.

Teflon

2 comments:

  1. Wow! I was learning the stuff while you were doing it....brings back memories (some very vague)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow Teffy, thanks for sharing the 'walking tall' experience you had in being fearlessly clear and authentic. bw

    ReplyDelete

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