Yogi Yarns – On being lucky. First is not always best

Yogi Berra:

“I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.”

I hold a record. It won’t ever be broken.

I can honestly say I am the co-author of IBM’s first open-source project, a Java source-to-bytecode compiler called Jikes.

I’m the guy who got IBM to write its first open-source license. I’m hoping it entitles me to a free round in any open-source bar in the world, if there is such a bar.

But I’m also very lucky. That I can say I was first doesn’t mean I was best. I was just … lucky.

I was lucky in several ways.

First, and most important, most of the code in Jikes was written by Philippe Charles. He wrote about 80 per cent of the code, the most difficult part. I wrote the byte-code generator and much of the infrastructure, but all the credit for the code quality in Jikes should go to him.

His work is a remarkable accomplishement. His design has stood the test of time. No one, and no corporation, has come close to matching what he accomplished. Jikes shows outstanding design. And that’s not counting the Jikes Parser Generator, JikesPG, which is solely Philippe’s work, and is I think still the best parser generator yet produced.

I can also claim some credit. Though I may not be the best programmer, I am persistent — damn persistent. I do try to see things through until the end. I did see the opportunity to take Jikes open-source and I saw that through to the end.

Second, I set out on the path that resulted in Jikes going open-source in early June 1998. I had no idea that others in IBM were on a path that would result in IBM’s engaging with Apache to make their httpd server IBM’s web server.

That was my great good fortune. If I had started earlier, no one would have thought it important that IBM release Jikes as open-source. If I had started later, others would have beat me to the finish line.

Indeed, Jikes was first only by a week or so. Less than ten days after the Jikes release IBM released the code for postfix, a work that I think all would agree is much better than Jikes.

Postfix is the work of a single individual, Wietse Zweitze Venema. It is true world-class code, as good as it gets. As it happens, Wietse, Philippe and I worked in the same building, IBM’s Hawthorne Lab, though we never met each other, and I only learned of the release of postfix in the press, as did the rest of the world.

By the way, there is a hilarious story about the postfix release, first told to me by Peter Capek, and related in part in Andrew Leonard’s incomplete history of open-source that can be found at (link TBSL).

The story goes as follows. Jikes went out on December 7th 1998. Postfix went out eight days later. Though Jikes was mentioned in the trade press, the postfix release was announced in an article in the New York Times Business section that had a headline of the form, “IBM releases free e-mail program.”

IBM’s CEO in those days was Lou Gerstner. He saw the article in the NY Times and, having paid about $3.5 billion for Lotus just a couple of years earlier, wondered what was afoot with IBM’s giving away a free e-mail program.

So he called IBM Research. As it happens, the key executive involved was away that day, so Lou then called the head of IBM Research, and asked about the postfix release. He was told, “I never heard about postfix. What’s a postfix?” So he then called others, including the head of IBM’s software group, and got the same response, “What’s a postfix?”

Lou then blew a gasket, and told all involved to cease and desist in any activity in this area called “open-source” until he had been briefed fully on just what it meant.

As it happens, while I was not directly involved in the postfix story, I have direct knowledge of the immediate past before it, and what happened later.

Looking back, I think that IBM’s serious enagement in open-source, beyond the initial Apache engagement, can be traced back to a single meeting in a room in Toronto in early October 1998, at the annual meeting of the IBM Academy of Technology, a group of 300 or so of IBM’s most senior technical employees.

I was not a member of the Academy, but was invited to present my experience with Jikes as part of a meeting on open-source called by one of the Academy members. I find it noteworthy that the member was a woman, Susan Malaika. She had attended a number of meetings in Silicon Valley earlier that year, and had often found herself one of the few women present, and I am sure that none of the male programmers who spoke to her had any idea she was one of the world experts in relational database technology.

Part of the Academy’s job is to look into the future and see what technologies are coming down the pike, in particular what are called “earthquake technologies.” These are the technologies that have the potential to reshape the industry. For example, if was an Academy member named Mike Cowlishaw who, I was told, went to Armonk in early 1995 to alert senior IBM management about a new technology called “Java.”

Susan and others thought open-source might be such a technology, and so called the meeting.

As a guest of the Academy I had the unique pleasure of hearing Lou’s presentation to the members in an hour-long presentation.

It was a tour-de-force presentation. Lou was proud, very proud, that he had been elected to the American Academy of Engineering, and he was masterful — talking to the folks he respected most, on their terms and on their turf.

At the end of his presentation, Susan asked him about “open source.” It was clear from his response that he knew of the term but that he had not yet seriously engaged with it.

As I mentioned earlier, Lou shut down all open-source activities in the middle of December 1998.

I was invited to participate as part of the IBM presence in the first ever Linuxworld, in San Jose in early March of 1999.

I recall the night before the conference started as clearly as anything else in my IBM career. That’s because it began with a presentation by the executive, Robert LeBlanc, who had led the study Lou had requested.

Whenever I have described Robert’s presentation, to IBM colleagues or at this moment as I write this, his words still send chills down my spine.

That’s because Robert said that Lou had approved IBM’s engaging in open-source as a serious business issue, a very serious business issue, way beyond anything I would have imagined had I not heard it spoken so directly. That a corporation the size of IBM could make such a dramatic strategic change was breathtaking.

It was also an occasion to make me proud to work for IBM. Indeed, one of the great joys of working for IBM is that such occasions come more often than one would expect.

Such occasions are also an invitation to blog, as I will discuss in a forthcoming post.

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  1. [...] I envy the researchers at Purdue and Carnegie-Mellon University who will be working with IBM Research on projects about “privacy and security-policy management,” as they will have the great good fortune to work with one of IBM’s best teams, “Security and Policy,” ably led by Charles Palmer for many years. They are truly as good as it gets at what they do, and are a great group of folks. Among them is Wietse Zweitze Venema, who is mentioned in my post Yogi Yarns – On being lucky. First is not always best. The team includes a group of “ethical hackers,” folks who will test your corporation’s security in ways few people know how to do, but only at your request. As one of them said, “It’s hard for IBM to hire people in this area. Most of the really good hackers have criminal records.” (See for example DUDley Snideley on Software – shutdown shot down, and look for mention of “Cap’n Crunch.”) [...]

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