Zen and the Art of Software: The Innovation Interview with Grady Booch (Part 1)

One of the greatest things about ‘Flat World Navigating’ the internet, is that it enables connections with fascinating minds, even if from a distance.  If you are able to then reach out to those magnificent minds and invite them to have a chat – the encounter can be transformational.  Such was the case with Grady Booch, who is, I believe, a most genial genius – a man who brings Zen to Art of Software.

Grady Booch: Capital I Interview Series – Number 14

I first encountered Grady Booch via his project, COMPUTING: The Human Experience, “a transmedia project engaging audiences of all ages in the story of the technology that has changed humanity.” I was immediately hooked on the concept, and wanted to discover the mega-mind who thought to pull this off.

In the pantheon of world-famous computer scientist’s, Grady Booch is the star who co-authored the Unified Modeling Language (UML) and was one of the original developers of object-oriented programming (OOP). That alone would be immensely impressive, but it is far from the end of Grady’s long list of credits, which include being an IBM Fellow (IBM’s highest technical position) and Chief Scientist for Software Engineering at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.

In fact, he’s quite a fella, being a fellow the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the World Technology Network (WTN) as well as being a Software Development Forum Visionary and recipient of Dr. Dobb’s Excellence in Programming Award and three – yes three! – Jolt Awards .

There is a rumour (one which he doesn’t discuss), that Grady was approached to takeover from Bill Gates as by Microsoft’s chief software architect.  What is not a rumour, and what Grady does admit to, is that he taught himself to program in 1968 and had built his first computer a year earlier – at the age of 12.

He is the author of six books, hundreds of articles, and papers that originated in the term and practice of object-oriented design (OOD) and collaborative development environments (CDE), and the Booch Method of Software engineering. Grady serves on the advisory board of the International Association of Software Architects (IASA), the IEEE Software editorial boards and the board of the Computer History Museum.

Yes, with all that (and more) to his credit, Grady could quite comfortably sit on his laurels, and yet, instead he is the author, narrator and co-creator of what could be seen as a historical magnum opus of the technological world, COMPUTING: The Human Experience.

“At the intersection of humanity and technology is COMPUTING. From the abacus to the iPad, from Gutenberg to Google, from the Enigma machine designed to crack the codes of the Nazi SS to the Large Hadron Collider designed to crack the code of the universe, from Pong to Halo, we have created computing to count the uncountable, remember beyond our own experience, touch the invisible and see the unforeseeable. COMPUTING: The Human Experience is a brilliant and surprising insider view of the hidden stories of passion, greed, rebellion, rage and creation that created the technologies that are everywhere, transforming our world, our lives, and who we are as a species.”

Grady is not alone in this endeavour, working as he does with a tremendous creative team which includes, among others: Grammy Award winner, Seth Friedman; President of the Computer History Museum, John Hollar; and psychotherapist/theologian/social worker Jan Booch, Grady’s wife, co-writer and co-creator of this obvious labour of love. The series will include lectures, books, videos, an interactive website, and much more.

February 24, 2012 sees Grady launch the first in a series of lecture series at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California.  For those readers who are not lucky enough to be in the vicinity to attendWoven on the Loom of Sorrow: The Co-Evolution of Computing and Conflict’, I hope you will enjoy reading this multi-part Innovation Interview with Grady as much as Michael and I enjoyed talking to him!

Grady Booch: Capital I Interview Series – Number 14 

Grady, when I clicked on the link from your LinkedIn profile, I was extremely excited by the idea of the COMPUTING: The Human Experience and found it to be immensely interesting!  What made you feel that it was important to compute the human experience?

I think it has to do a lot of where I am in my life.  In the sense that I have nothing left to prove, if you will, and I could do what I want to do.  I could just happily fade away into an existence here.  But, I think part of it is wanting to give back to the community that has given so much to me; and being able to express to the general public my child-like joy and delight at what I do.  That’s why I think I chose to go down this path of telling the story.

In the end, I’m a story teller, and I think there is a story to be told here. There’s probably some other factors that happened that led me in this direction. Just random stories… A side conversation with one of our goddaughters…

We were talking to her about computing stuff, and she said:

“Oh, I know everything there is to know about computing. Because I’ve taken a class.”
“Oh, what did you learn?”
“Well, in my class we learned how to write a Word document and how to surf the web.”
I was like: “Oh, my gosh; there is so much more!”

It’s things like that that have led me to say… We’ve created this technology, and I’m responsible for helping create that technology, and we as a civilisation have chosen to step inside and live inside it. We’ve created a world and yet most of people in the world don’t understand it and can’t understand how to use it to their advantage.

I think my goal is: let’s open the curtain and explain some of that matter, and the mystery, beauty, excitement, and human stories that lead to it.

I think there is a lot of latent interest there, that is untapped at the moment.

I think so; I hope so.  Well, there is a lot of interest in anything.  Why do you think we still watch celebrities like Paris Hilton? It’s amazing what people get interested in.

But I think here is a topic that has profoundly changed humanity, and we are at the time and place where we can talk about it.  And the people who made these changes… many of them are still alive, so let’s get their stories and tell that to the world!

The phrase I often use is: “An educated populous is far better able to reconcile its past, reason about its present and shape its future.”  And I want to help contribute to educating that populous.

You don’t shy away from contentious topics, either. Such as: computing and war, computing and faith, and computing and politics. What are your thoughts on these subjects?

It’s interesting you called them controversial, because I see them as simply part of human experience.  The reality is that there are billions of people, a billion Muslims, a billion Christians, and lots of others who profess a faith of some sort.  So, to not talk about faith denies an element of the human experience; to not talk about war denies the existence of warfare.  It’s not intentionally controversial, it’s a recognition that this is part of the human experience, and that it’s reasonable for us to consider what role computing has played in it.

So, let’s take computing and war for example. This is the one that I’ll be giving my first lecture [Woven on the Loom of Sorrow: The Co-Evolution of Computing and Conflict] on at the Computer History Museum on February 24.  My premise is that war is part of the human experience, for better or worse.

By the way, a background you must recognise was that I trained to be a warrior.  I went to the Air Force Academy and I learned about war, and many of my classmates have killed people in anger in warfare.  It’s part of the life in which I have lived.

And yet, if you look at the parallel story of computing and warfare, the conclusion I draw is that computing was, at one time, a companion to warfare; it now is a means of warfare, and it’s quickly becoming a place of warfare.  I’d like to tell that story: an observation, from an insider, of how computing has both enabled and been shaped by warfare.

I think the average person would be surprised to know that your average smart phone, and a considerable amount of technology, exists simply because of what happened during the Cold War and World War II.

2012 is the centenary of Alan Turning's birth

There are surprises in those regards.  There are also some incredible personal stories. The tragic story of Alan Turing... [considered to be the father of computer science and AI]

Absolutely!

Who changed the course of World War II.  He saved a nation, and yet that very nation eventually condemned him because he was homosexual. Go figure!

Will the lecture be something that people around the world will be able to access?

Our intent is to make it available on our YouTube channel and the museum’s channel. And I believe the local PBS station, QED, has an interest in making it available on their channels as well.

Wonderful!

So, yeah, we’re going to see a wide distribution of this.  Ultimately, you can view this as the alpha (or beta) of what we’re trying to do with the series.  One of the main things we’d like to get out to the world is an eleven-part series for broadcast. This [lecture] is not the broadcast, but we’re talking about it and this is one of the lectures about it.

What is the end product, or goal, of the COMPUTING: The Human Experience project? Would you say that the series is the end product, or is it something that doesn’t necessarily have to have an end?

It won’t ever have an end because I hope we will develop a dialogue with the public that goes on far beyond this.

Look at Sagan’s Cosmos; it’s still being seen to this day.  I hope, and I certainly strive, to produce something as interesting and as timeless that.  So, I’ll put it in the terms of [political scientist] Herbert Simon:  ‘What our intermediate stable forms are‘…  We want to produce eleven one-hour episodes (that’s a big thing), have a book, an e-book, curriculum materials, some Aaps.  Those are the physical things we’ll actually be delivering.

To that end, you’ve already gone through one very successful Kickstarter funding round.  I’m sure there will be others, but, other than helping to fund the project, what can readers of the Innovation interviews do to help you, and the project, reach some of those goals?

I think there are two things: My wife Jan and I have self-funded this for the last four years, but we’ve now gone to funding, like with Kickstarter – the very process of doing a Kickstarter has brought a number of volunteers to us.  In the next few years, we need to raise about eleven-million dollars to pull this off.  We’re going to foundations, we’re talking to individuals, and we’ll continue on that path.

Grady and Jan Booch

In a recent interview with Grady, Darryl K. Taft noted, “Meanwhile, Jan’s role on the project is multi-faceted.  As a social worker, she attends to issues of multiculturalism, inclusivism and the impact computing has had on society.  As a psychotherapist, her focus is on how human desires and needs have shaped and continue to shape the development of computing technology.  As a theologian, her focus is on the moral and ethical issues found in the story of computing.  Finally, as a non-technical person, she assures that the stories will be approachable, understandable and interesting to the general public.”

Working on the book and lecture series allows us to continue story development in a very, very low-cost kind of way. So, one of the things that I hope people can do is to say: “Hey! I know a guy who knows a guy, who works for this person, and they may be interested.” I hope we can find some serendipitous connections to people with whom we can find some funding.

I know foundations within the US, but I don’t know what opportunities there are in other parts of the world; we’re telling a global story so I hope we can get some connections that way.

The second is: I hope that people will look at this and say: “This is interesting. I think you should tell this story or that story.”  And so I hope from this people will come to us and help inform us as to what they thing the world should know about.

[They hope to collect more than 2,000 human experience videos for their YouTube channel, so don’t be shy, make a video!]

Along with a magnificent creative team, you have an extremely eminent board for the COMPUTING: The Human Experience project. In particular, I must note Vint Cerf, who helped me kick off the Innovation interview series and really was integral in its initial success. How did you gather those people around you?

My philosophy is to surround myself with people far smarter than I am, because they know things that I will never know.  I want to be able to go to them for two reasons: one is as a source of information, and the second is as a source of contacts.

Tim O'Reilly

I reached out to this set of people and I’m going to be growing the board to around 20 or 30 total for people who have specific expertise and who have been game changers in certain domains.

I’ll give you a great example of how this has worked well: Vint, Tim O’Reilly and Mary Shaw have been particularly useful for me thus far, but for developing the lecture on computing and warfare, one of the people on my board is Lt. Gen. William Lord, who happens to be the Chief Information Officer and Chief War Fighting Officer of the Air Force.

Mary Shaw

He has helped me out because I wanted to get some information that simply doesn’t exist in ‘the literature’: what’s the current doctrine at the war colleges about the use of Predators… what are people thinking?  He put me in touch with people who have that source of information.

Lt. Gen. William Lord

Tim has been able to do similar kinds of things.  The computing community, at one level, is a relatively small community; we all kind of know all the movers and shakers.  Well, let’s get them to be a part of this, because I’m also celebrating their story!

You can learn more about Grady via the COMPUTING: The Human Experience website, Grady’s blog and his Twitter feed.

This is part one of a multi-part interview with Grady, be sure to look out for the next instalment – Part Two can be viewed here and part three here.

If you’re in the San Francisco area on the 24th of February, I heartily suggest you try and attend Grady’s lecture. If you, like me, are unable to attend, be sure to keep your eye on the COMPUTING: The Human Experience YouTube channel where the lectures will be posted.

[Note: the lecture has now been posted on the Computer History Museum YouTube channel.  Thanks  to John Hollar for letting us know!]

[Kim, Michael and Grady Skyped from their homes in Sydney and Hawaii.]


21 responses to “Zen and the Art of Software: The Innovation Interview with Grady Booch (Part 1)

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    Catch you again soon!

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