Archive for the ‘History’ Category.

Ten traits of exceptional innovators

Imagine having had coffee, over the years, with each of Euclid, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Einstein, Planck and de Broglie. For a computer scientist, if we set aside the founding generation (the Turings and von Neumanns), the equivalent is possible. I have had the privilege of meeting and in some cases closely interacting with pioneer scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs, including Nobel, Fields and Turing winners, Silicon-Valley-type founders and such. It is only fair that I should share some of the traits I have observed in them.

Clarification and disclaimer:

  • This discussion is abstract and as a result probably boring because I am not citing anyone by name (apart from a few famous figures, most of whom are dead and none of whom I have met). It would be more concrete and lively if I buttressed my generalities by actual examples, of which I have many. The absence of any name-dropping is a matter of courtesy and respect for people who have interacted with me unguardedly as a colleague, not a journalist preparing a tell-all book. I could of course cite the names for positive anecdotes only, but that would bias the story (see point 4). So, sorry, no names (and I won’t relent even if you ask me privately — mumm like a fish).
  • I am looking at truly exceptional people. They are drawn from a more general pool of brilliant, successful scientists and technologists, of which they form only a small subset. Many of their traits also apply to this more general community and to highly successful people in any profession. What interests me is the extra step from brilliant to exceptional. It would not be that difficult to identify fifty outstanding mathematics researchers in, say, 1900, and analyze their psychological traits. The question is: why are some of them Hilbert and Poincaré, and others not?
  • Of course I do not even begin to answer that question. I only offer a few personal remarks.
  • More generally, cargo cult does not work. Emulating every one of the traits listed below will not get you a Nobel prize. You will not turn into a great composer by eating lots of Tournedos Rossini. (Well, you might start looking like the aging Rossini.) This note presents some evidence; it does not present any conclusion, let alone advice. Any consequence is for you to draw, or not.
  • The traits obviously do not universally characterize the population observed. Not all of the people exhibit all of the traits. On the other hand, my impression is that most exhibit most.

1 Idiosyncratic

“Idiosyncratic” is a high-sounding synonym for “diverse,” used here to deflect the ridicule of starting a list of what is common to those people by stating that they are different from each other. The point is important, though, and reassuring. Those people come in all stripes, from the stuffy professor to the sandals-shorts-and-Hawaiian-shirt surfer.  Their ethnic backgrounds vary. And (glad you asked) some are men and some are women.

Consideration of many personality and lifestyle features yields not pattern at all. Some of the people observed are courteous, a delight to deal with, but there are a few jerks too. Some are voluble, some reserved. Some boastful, some modest. Some remain for their full life married to the same person, some have been divorced many times, some are single. Some become CEOs and university presidents, others prefer the quieter life of a pure researcher. Some covet honors, others are mostly driven by the pursuit of knowledge. Some wanted to become very rich and did, others care little about money.  It is amazing to see how many traits appear irrelevant, perhaps reinforcing the value of those that do make a difference.

2 Lucky

In trying to apply a cargo-cult-like recipe, this one would be the hardest to emulate. We all know that Fleming came across penicillin thanks to a petri dish left uncleaned on the window sill; we also know that luck favors only the well-prepared: someone other than Fleming would have grumbled at the dirtiness of the place and thrown the dish into the sink. But I am not just talking about that kind of luck. You have to be at the right place at the right time.

Read the biographies, and you will see that almost always the person happened to study with a professor who just then was struggling with a new problem, or did an internship in a group that had just invented a novel technique, or heard about recent results before everyone else did.

Part of what comes under “luck” is luck in obtaining the right education. Sure, there are a few autodidacts, but most of the top achievers studied in excellent institutions.

Success comes from a combination of nature and nurture. The perfect environment, such as a thriving laboratory or world-class research university, is not enough; but neither is individual brilliance. In most cases it is their combination that produces the catalysis.

3 Smart

Laugh again if you wish, but I do not just mean the obvious observation that those people were clever in what they did. In my experience they are extremely intelligent in other ways too. They often possess deep knowledge beyond their specialties and have interesting conversations.

You approach them because of the fame they gained in one domain, and learn from them about topics far beyond it.

4 Human

At first, the title of this section is another cause for ridicule: what did you expect, extraterrestrials? But “human” here means human in their foibles too. You might expect, if not an extraterrestrial, someone of the oracle-of-Delphi or wizard-on-a-mountain type, who after a half-hour of silence makes a single statement perfect in its concision and exactitude.

Well, no. They are smart, but they say foolish things too. And wrong things. Not only do they say them, they even publish them. (Newton wasted his brilliance on alchemy. Voltaire — who was not a scientist but helped promote science, translating Newton and supporting the work of Madame du Châtelet — wasted his powerful wit to mock the nascent study of paleontology: so-called fossils are just shells left over by picnicking tourists! More recently, a very famous computer scientist wrote a very silly book — of which I once wrote, fearlessly, a very short and very disparaging review.)

So what? It is the conclusion of the discussion that counts, not the meanderous path to it, or the occasional hapless excursion into a field where your wisdom fails you. Once you have succeeded, no one will care how many wrong comments you made in the process.

It is fair to note that the people under consideration probably say fewer stupid things than most. (The Erich Kästner ditty from an earlier article applies.) But no human, reassuringly perhaps, is right 100% of the time.

What does set them apart from many people, and takes us back to the previous trait (smart), is that even those who are otherwise vain have no qualms recognizing  mistakes in their previous thinking. They accept the evidence and move on.

5 Diligent

Of two people, one an excellent, top-ranked academic, the other a world-famous pioneer, who is the more likely to answer an email? In my experience, the latter.

Beyond the folk vision of the disheveled, disorganized, absent-minded professor lies the reality of a lifetime of rigor and discipline.

This should not be a surprise. There is inspiration, and there is perspiration.  Think of it as the dual of the  broken-windows theory, or of the judicial view that a defendant who lies in small things probably lies in big things: the other way around, if you do huge tasks well, you probably do small tasks well too.

6 Focused

Along with diligence comes focus, carried over from big matters to small matters. It is the lesser minds that pretend to multiplex. Great scientists, in my experience, do not hack away at their laptops during talks, and they turn off their cellphones. They choose carefully what they do (they are deluged with requests and learn early to say no), but what they accept to do they do. Seriously, attentively, with focus.

A fascinating spectacle is a world-famous guru sitting in the first row at a conference presentation by a beginning Ph.D. student, and taking detailed notes. Or visiting an industrial lab and quizzing a junior engineer about the details of the latest technology.

For someone who in spite of the cargo cult risk is looking for one behavior to clone, this would be it. Study after study has shown that we only delude ourselves in thinking we can multiplex. Top performers understand this. In the seminar room, they are not the ones doing email. If they are there at all, then watch and listen.

7 Eloquent

Top science and technology achievers are communicators. In writing, in speaking, often in both.

This quality is independent from their personal behavior, which can cover the full range from shy to boisterous.  It is the quality of being articulate. They know how to convey their results — and often do not mind crossing the line to self-advertising. It is not automatically the case that true value will out: even the most impressive advances need to be pushed to the world.

The alternative is to become Gregor Mendel: he single-handedly discovered the laws of genetics, and was so busy observing the beans in his garden that no one heard about his work until some twenty years after his death. Most people prefer to get the recognition earlier. (Mendel was a monk, so maybe he believed in an afterlife; yet again maybe he, like everyone else, might have enjoyed attracting interest on this earth first.)

In computer science it is not surprising that many of the names that stand out are of people who have written seminal books that are a pleasure to read. Many of them are outstanding teachers and speakers as well.

8 Open

Being an excellent communicator does not mean that you insist on talking. The great innovators are excellent listeners too.

Some people keep talking about themselves. They exist in all human groups, but this particular trait is common among scientists, particularly junior scientists, who corner you and cannot stop telling you about their ideas and accomplishments. That phenomenon is understandable, and in part justified by an urge to avoid the Mendel syndrome. But in a conversation involving some less and some more recognized professionals it is often the most accomplished members of the group who talk least. They are eager to learn. They never forget that the greatest insighs can start with a casual observation from an improbable source. They know when to talk, and when to shut up and listen.

Openness also means intellectual curiosity, willingness to have your intellectual certainties challenged, focus on the merit of a comment rather than the commenter’s social or academic status, and readiness to learn from disciplines other than your own.

9 Selfish

People having achieved exceptional results were generally obsessed with the chase and the prey. They are as driven as an icebreaker ship in the Sea of Barents. They have to get through; the end justifies the means; anything in the way is collateral damage.

So it is not surprising, in the case of academics, to hear colleagues from their institutions mumble that X never wanted to do his share, leaving it to others to sit in committees, teach C++ to biology majors and take their turn as department chair. There are notable exceptions, such as the computer architecture pioneer who became provost then president at Stanford before receiving the Turing Award. But  you do not achieve breakthroughs by doing what everything else is doing. When the rest of the crowd is being sociable and chatty at the conference party long into the night, you go back to your hotel to be alert for tomorrow’s session. A famous if extreme case is Andrew Wiles, whom colleagues in the department considered a has-been, while he was doing the minimum necessary to avoid trouble while working secretly and obsessively to prove Fermat’s last theorem.

This trait is interesting in light of the soothing discourse in vogue today. Nothing wrong with work-life balance, escaping the rat race, perhaps even changing your research topic every decade (apparently the rule in some research organizations). Sometimes a hands-off, zen-like attitude will succeed where too much obstination would get stuck. But let us not fool ourselves: the great innovators never let go of the target.

10. Generous

Yes, selfishness can go with generosity. You obsess over your goals, but it does not mean you forget other people.

Indeed, while there are a few solo artists in the group under observation, a striking feature of the majority is that in addition to their own achievements they led to the creation of entire communities, which often look up to them as gurus. (When I took the comprehensive exam at Stanford, the first question was what the middle initial “E.” of a famous professor stood for. It was a joke question, counting for maybe one point out of a hundred, helpfully meant to defuse students’ tension in preparation for the hard questions that followed. But what I remember is that every fellow student whom I asked afterwards knew the answer. Me too. Such was the personality cult.) The guru effect can lead to funny consequences, as with the famous computer scientist whose disciples you could spot right away in conferences by their sandals and beards (I do not remember how the women coped), carefully patterned after the master’s.

The leader is often good at giving every member of that community flattering personal attention. In a retirement symposium for a famous professor, almost every person I talked too was proud of having developed a long-running, highly personal and of course unique relationship with the honoree. One prestigious computer scientist who died in the 80’s encouraged and supported countless young people in his country; 30 years later, you keep running into academics, engineers and managers who tell you that they owe their career to him.

Some of this community-building can be self-serving and part of a personal strategy for success. There has to be more to it, however. It is not just that community-building will occur naturally as people discover the new ideas: since these ideas are often controversial at first, those who understood their value early band together to defend them and support their inventor. But there is something else as well in my observation: the creators’ sheer, disinterested generosity.

These people are passionate in their quest for discovery and creation and genuinely want to help others. Driven and self-promoting they may be, but the very qualities that led to their achievements — insight, intellectual courage, ability to think beyond accepted ideas — are at the antipodes of pettiness and narrow-mindedness. A world leader cannot expect any significant personal gain from spotting and encouraging a promising undergraduate, telling a first-time conference presenter that her idea is great and worth pushing further, patiently explaining elementary issues to a beginning student, or responding to a unknown correspondent’s emails. And still, as I have observed many times, they do all of this and more, because they are in the business of advancing knowledge.

These are some of the traits I have observed. Maybe there are more but, sorry, I have to go now. The pan is sizzling and I don’t like my tournedos too well-done.

recycled-logo (Originally published on CACM blog.)

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 9.5/10 (6 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +4 (from 4 votes)

I didn’t make it up…

An article published here a few years ago, reproducing a note I wrote much earlier (1992), pointed out that conventional wisdom about the history of software engineering, cited in every textbook, is inaccurate: the term “software engineering” was in use before the famous 1968 Garmisch-Partenkichen conference. See that article for details.

Recently a colleague wanted to cite my observation but could not find my source, a 1966 Communications of the ACM article using the term. Indeed that text is not currently part of the digitalized ACM archive (Digital Library). But I knew it was not a figment of my imagination or of a bad memory.

The reference given in my note is indeed correct; with the help of the ETH library, I was able to get a scan of the original printed article. It is available here.

The text is not a regular CACM article but a president’s letter, part of the magazine’s front matter, which the digital record does not always include. In this case historical interest suggests it should; I have asked the ACM to add it. In the meantime, you can read the scanned version for  a nostalgic peek into what the profession found interesting half a century ago.

Note (12 November 2018): The ACM Digital Library responded (in a matter of hours!) and added the letter to the digital archive.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 8.4/10 (8 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +3 (from 3 votes)

Apocalypse no! (Part 2)


Recycled(Revised from an article originally published in the CACM blog. Part 2 of a two-part article.)

Part 1 of this article (to be found here, please read it first) made fun of authors who claim that software engineering is a total failure — and, like everyone else, benefit from powerful software at every step of their daily lives.

Catastrophism in talking about software has a long history. Software engineering started around 1966 [1] with the recognition of a “software crisis“. For many years it was customary to start any article on any software topic by a lament about the terrible situation of the field, leaving in your reader’s mind the implicit suggestion that the solution to the “crisis” lay in your article’s little language or tool.

After the field had matured, this lugubrious style went out of fashion. In fact, it is hard to sustain: in a world where every device we use, every move we make and every service we receive is powered by software, it seems a bit silly to claim that in software development everyone is wrong and everything is broken.

The apocalyptic mode has, however, made a comeback of late in the agile literature, which is fond in particular of citing the so-called “Chaos” reports. These reports, emanating from Standish, a consulting firm, purport to show that a large percentage of projects either do not produce anything or do not meet their objectives. It was fashionable to cite Standish (I even included a citation in a 2003 article), until the methodology and the results were thoroughly debunked starting in 2006 [2, 3, 4]. The Chaos findings are not replicated by other studies, and the data is not available to the public. Capers Jones, for one, publishes his sources and has much more credible results.

Yet the Chaos results continue to be reverently cited as justification for agile processes, including, at length, in the most recent book by the creators of Scrum [5].

Not long ago, I raised the issue with a well-known software engineering author who was using the Standish findings in a talk. Wasn’t he aware of the shakiness of these results? His answer was that we don’t have anything better. It did not sound like the kind of justification we should use in a mature discipline. Either the results are sound, or we should not rely on them.

Software engineering is hard enough and faces enough obstacles, so obvious to everyone in the industry and to every user of software products, that we do not need to conjure up imaginary scandals and paint a picture of general desolation and universal (except for us, that is) incompetence. Take Schwaber and Sutherland, in their introductory chapter:

You have been ill served by the software industry for 40 years—not purposely, but inextricably. We want to restore the partnership.

No less!

Pretending that the whole field is a disaster and no one else as a clue may be a good way to attract attention (for a while), but it is infantile as well as dishonest. Such gross exaggerations discredit their authors, and beyond them, the ideas they promote, good ones included.

As software engineers, we can in fact feel some pride when we look at the world around us and see how much our profession has contributed to it. Not just the profession as a whole, but, crucially, software engineering research: advances in programming methodology, software architecture, programming languages, specification techniques, software tools, user interfaces, formal modeling of software concepts, process management, empirical analysis and human aspects of computing have, step after step, belied the dismal picture that may have been painfully accurate in the early days.

Yes, challenges and unsolved problems face us at every corner of software engineering. Yes, we are still at the beginning, and on many topics we do not even know how to proceed. Yes, there are lots of things to criticize in current practices (and I am not the least vocal of the critics, including in this blog). But we need a sense of measure. Software engineering has made tremendous progress over the last five decades; neither the magnitude of the remaining problems nor the urge to sell one’s products and services justifies slandering the rest of the discipline.

Notes and references

[1] Not in 1968 with the NATO conference, as everyone seems to believe. See an earlier article in this blog.

[2] Robert L. Glass: The Standish report: does it really describe a software crisis?, in Communications of the ACM, vol. 49, no. 8, pages 15-16, August 2006; see here.

[3] J. Laurens Eveleens and Chris Verhoef: The Rise and Fall of the Chaos Report Figures, in IEEE Software, vol. 27, no. 1, Jan-Feb 2010, pages 30-36; see here.

[4] S. Aidane, The “Chaos Report” Myth Busters, 26 March 2010, see here.

[5] Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland: Software in 30 Days: How Agile Managers Beat the Odds, Delight Their Customers, And Leave Competitors In the Dust, Wiley, 2012.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 10.0/10 (3 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +4 (from 6 votes)

Ershov lecture


On April 11 I gave the “Ershov lecture” in Novosibirsk. I talked about concurrency; a video recording is available here.

The lecture is given annually in memory of Andrey P. Ershov, one of the founding fathers of Russian computer science and originator of many important concepts such as partial evaluation. According to Wikipedia, Knuth considers Ershov to be the inventor of hashing. I was fortunate to make Ershov’s acquaintance in the late seventies and to meet him regularly afterwards. He invited me to his institute in Novosibirsk for a two-month stay where I learned a lot. He had a warm, caring personality, and set many young computer scientists in their tracks. His premature death in 1988 was a shock to all and his memory continues to be revered; it was gratifying to be able to give the lecture named in his honor.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

Memories of a dark time


A few years back my mother started writing her memoirs. She only completed a few chapters, hand-written, and I offered to type them up. There was not enough material to approach a publisher (my fault, for not pushing her to write more); the text has remained unpublished. I am making it available now: see here.

It is in French; if there is enough interest I will translate it. (Although the text is not very long, it is well written so the translation should be done carefully.) For reference I have included below the entry about my mother in one of many books about the period.

Here as a taste of the text is a translation of a short extract from chapter 5 (Grenoble, 1942, where her mission in the resistance network was to find safe havens for Jewish children):

 Along with hosting familes there were religious boarding schools, and I should pay homage to a young Mother Superior, whose name I unfortunately forgot, who accepted some of our little girls cordially and without any afterthoughts. From schools for boys, however, how many rejections we had to suffer!

I also have to evoke that other Mother Superior, stern and dry, who after making me languish for several days while asking for the approval of her supervisors finally consented to see four or five little girls. I arrived with five of my charges, whom my neighbor had brought to me after their parents were arrested on that very morning. I can still see the high-ceilinged parlor, the crucifix on the wall, the freshly waxed and shining floor, the carefully polished furniture and a tiny figure with curly brown hair, all trembling: the eldest girl, who at the point of entering stepped back and burst into tears.  “One does not enter crying the house of the Holy Virgin Mary”, pronounced the Mother Superior, who had me take my little flock back to Grenoble, without further concerning herself with its fate.

And this note from the final chapter about the days of the Liberation of France, when under a false name she was working as a nurse for the Red Cross in the Limoges area:

This time it was the collaborationists’ turn to flee. I almost became a victim in a tragicomic incident when once, doing my daily rounds, I had to show my papers to a young FFI [members of the internal resistance army], aged maybe eighteen, who claimed the papers were fakes. Indeed they were: I still had not been able to re-establish my true identity. I tried to explain that as a Jew I had had to live under a borrowed name. He answered that by now all the “collabos” claimed to be Jewish to escape the wrath of the people…

 To understand the note that follows it is necessary to know a bit about the history of the period: the Drancy camp, OSE (see the Wikipedia entry), the Garel network. For the 100-th anniversary of OSE a documentary film was produced, featuring my mother among the interviewees; see a short reference to the movie here.

Biographical entry

From: Organisation juive de combat — Résistance / Sauvetage (Jewish Combat Organization: Resistance and Rescue), France 1940-1945, under the direction of Jean Brauman, Georges Loinger and Frida Wattenberg, Éditions Autrement, Paris, 2002.
Comments in brackets […] are by me (BM).

Name: Meyer née Kahn, Madeleine
Born 22 May 1914 in Paris
Resistance networks: Garel
Resistance period: from 1941 to the Liberation: Rivesaltes (Pyrénées-Orientales), Font-Romeu (Pyrénées-Orientales), Masgelier (Creuse), Lyons, Grenoble, Limoges
: Andrée Salomon, Georges Garel

In July of 1942, Madeleine Kahn was sent by Andrée Salomon and Georges Garel to work at Rivesaltes [a horrendous “transit camp”, see here] as a social worker. She worked there for several weeks and helped improve the life of people interned there; she managed to extricate from the camp a number of children that she took to Perpignan and moved to several hosting places such as Font-Romeu and Le Masgelier. In Le Masgelier [a center that hosted Jewish children], she was assigned the mission of convoying to Marseilles, for emigration to the United States, Jewish children who were of foreign origin and hence in a particularly dangerous situation. [These were children from Jewish families that had fled Germany and Austria after Hitler’s accession to power and were particular sought by the Nazis.] The local authorities had put them up in the castle of Montgrand, already used as a hosting camp for elderly Austrian refugees. The Germans’ arrival  into the Southern half of France [until 1942 they were only occupying the Northern half of the country] abruptly stopped the departures for the US, and the authorities changed the children’s status to prisoners, held in appalling conditions. Madeleine Kahn remained alone with the children. All escape attempts failed. They were only freed after a long time, and sent back in some cases to their families and in others to Le Masgelier.

In November of 1942, Georges Garel and Andrée Salomon put Madeleine Kahn in charge of organizing the reception and hiding of children in the Isère area [the region around Grenoble], which by then was still part of the Italian-occupied zone. [Italian occupation was generally felt much lighter than the German one, in particular regarding persecution of Jews.] The mission was to find hosting families or religious institutions, catholic or protestant, and in advance of such placement to prepare the children to their new [false] identities and help separate them from their parents [when still alive and not deported]. It was also necessary to obtain the support of some authorities, such as Mme Merceron-Vicat from the child support administration and Sister Joséphine of Our Lady of Sion. After a while Madeleine was joined by Dr. Selinger and Herta Hauben, both of whom were eventually deported. Later on she collaborated with Fanny Loinger [another key name in the Jewish resistance], who for safety reasons took over in Isère and particularly in the Drôme.

After the departure of the Italians [and their replacement by the Germans], the situation became extremely dangerous and she had constantly to move the children around.

Warned that she was being tracked, Madeleine Kahn hurried to reclaim two babies that had been left in the La Tronche nursery. The director refused to give her Corinne, aged one, as earlier on three Germans had come for her, wanting to take her to Drancy [the collection point in France for the train convoys en route for Auschwitz], where her parents were being held. Upon seeing the child’s age, the Germans had left, announcing they would come back with a nurse. Instantly, Madeleine summons her friends in various [resistance] organizations and the process sets into motion: produce a fake requisition order in German with a fake seal stenciled from a war prisoner’s package; hire a taxi; make up a nurse’s uniform for Renée Schutz, German-born in Berlin as Ruth Schütz. Equipped with the requisition order, the false German nurse arrives at the nursery while Madeleine acts as a sentry to stop the Germans if needed. Corinne, the baby, is saved. [I became friends with her in the nineteen-seventies.]

The duped Germans were enraged. From an employee of the nursery they obtained Madeleine’s address, but she had left. The landlady gave them the address of Simone, Madeleine’s sister. [Simone was not a member of the network but knew all about it.] Interrogated under torture, she gave nothing away. All attempts to free her failed. She was deported to Auschwitz from where [adopting along the way an 8-year-old girl whose parents had already been deported, who clung to her, causing her to be treated like mothers with children, i.e. gassed immediately] she never returned.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 10.0/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: +3 (from 3 votes)