I made a connection this week reaching back 25 years to the first time I ever programmed seriously; this retrospective is mostly for my own amusement, but contains some references that will probably bring smiles to faces that have a few grey hairs attached.

1979 · I was an undergrad at the University of Guelph; I’d already got a math degree, wanting to be a teacher, but there weren’t any jobs for math teachers just then, so I was adding a Computer Science major and realizing this was what I ought to be doing anyhow.

I snagged a part-time job on what was called the “Georef” project, building what we’d now call GIS software, which digitized, stored, and displayed maps of various kinds. I was supposed to write a compiler, using very early versions of lex and yacc on Unix V6 running on a PDP-11/44. The compiler was for a special-purpose language controlling interaction with a digitizer.

At the end of the 3-month term I had it limping but not really shaken down, and like many part-time student projects, I don’t think it ever really went anywhere. But, it was the first time I got paid for writing code, and I sure learned a hell of a lot very fast. I will pass up the opportunity to bore you with details of how tough computing was “back when I was your age,” but I should note that I have a couple of terminal windows open on this OS X box where I frequently type some of the same commands that I used 25 years back.

1982 · I graduated and went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), then the world’s second-largest computer company, since run downhill by a decade of mismanagement and now absorbed into the Compaq-HP empire. I was a “Software Specialist” in the Toronto field office, doing a little billable consulting and a lot of technical support for the sales process. The work was pretty well all around VAX/VMS, which we were then pitching as the be-all and end-all of operating systems.

Anyhow, one of the salesguys was trying to sell some VAXes to the Government of Ontario, and came to us techies for some help because he couldn’t understand what they were talking about. It turned out that the problem was they were in Unix-land, and, hey! This was the Georef project, migrated out of the U of Guelph basements into production mode. So I put up my hand and said I might be able to help.

We were competing for the business with Perkin-Elmer, who still exist but haven’t made Unix boxes in a decade or two. It came down to a competitive benchmark; they gave both vendors a hairball of the code and asked us to show them the timings.

Except for, at that time there was no Unix infrastructure in Canada, so I and the salesguy went down to the Boston head office to try to get this to work. We were going to use one of DEC’s shiny new VAX-11/750s, just barely released and considered pretty hot stuff at the time.

The DEC Unix group was pretty small; it featured the talents of Armando Stettner and Bill Shannon. They ran this one big VAX that was really central in the UUCP what-came-before-the-Internet network, called decvax. Bill, a classically geeky redhead, held our hands and helped debug the customer’s weird ioctl() calls and get the thing running, and we both got a reprimand from the salesman for swearing in front of the customer at the (very new) 11/750 when it kept crashing as we tried to do the benchmark. We lost, Perkin-Elmer got the business because they were faster.

I was a know-nothing kid and Bill seemed impossibly glamorous, getting paid to wear jeans and work on Unix all day.

1988 · Bill went on to Sun and was crucial in the work there on turning BSD Unix into an actual commercial operating system, his fingerprints are all over Solaris and J2EE. My only contact was once in 1988, standing in front of a Sun box at the University of Waterloo when it crashed, the console printing out Shannon says this can’t happen.

2004/04/06 · I got asked to visit the Java XML Architecture group at Sun to talk about syndication technology and how that should fit in. In the corner of the room was this red-headed guy who turned out to be Bill Shannon. After we’d finished talking about RSS and Atom and Java and so on, I accosted Bill and said “Hey, we met twenty years ago.” He didn’t remember. But he wanted to know more about blogs, and I told him about Bloglines, and he’s using it.


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April 08, 2004
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