Zen and the Art of Software: The Innovation Interview with Grady Booch (Part 2)

In the pantheon of world-famous computer scientist’s, Grady Booch is the star who co-authored the Unified Modeling Language (UML) and co-developed object-oriented programming (OOP). He is a Fellow of  IBM, ACM, the IEEE, the author of six books, hundreds of articles and papers and the Booch Method of Software engineering. Grady serves on several boards, including that of the Computer History Museum and 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. 

To view the full introduction to this multi-part interview with Grady, and Part 1 of the series: Click here

Grady Booch: Capital I Interview Series – Number 14

[This was a joint conversation between Grady, Michael and myself. I’ve italicised Michael’s questions to Ora so you are able to differentiate between us - though, I think it will become obvious as you read - lol!]

Grady, lets begin with the very basics. As this is the Innovation Interview Series, let’s start with: how do you define innovation?

Ecclesiastes 1:9 has this great phrase:

What has been will be again.  What has been done before will be done again.  There is nothing new under the Sun“.

The way I take it is that innovation – really deep innovation – is about warming the Earth with the Sun of your own making. And to that end, that’s how I distinguish the ‘small i’ from the ‘Big I’.

The ‘small i’ therefore means: I may have a brilliant idea and it warms me, but the ‘Big I’ Innovation is where I can start warming others.  There are new suns possible; there are new ways of warming the Earth… And I think innovation is about doing so.

One of my heroes is the physicist Richard Feynman. If you read any of his stuff or watch his physics lectures – which are just absolutely incredible [Ed. Note: As is his series: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out] – there are some conclusions you can draw (and there is a delightful article someone wrote about the nine things they learned from Feynman.  The way I frame it is to say that I admire him and his innovation because he was intensely curious but at the same time he was bold, he was not fearful of going down a path that interested him. At the same time (too) he was also very child-like and very, very playful.  In the end what really inspires me from Feynman’s work is he was never afraid to fail, but much like Joseph Campbell observes, he followed his bliss.

Richard Feynman

I think that many innovators are often isolated because we’re the ones who are following our bliss; we really don’t care if others have that same bliss.  We are so consumed by that, that we follow it where it leads us, and we do so in a very innocent, playful way… We are not afraid to fail.

I’ve noticed that there is often a level of audacity and a lack of fear within innovators, but sometimes I wonder if that audacity and lack of fear could frighten general society.

Well, I think there’s a fine line between audacity and madness.

And that depends on what side of the fence you’re on.

Exactly. It also depends upon the cultural times. Because, what Galileo said in his time [that the earth and planets revolve around the sun] was not just audacious, it was threatening.

To the church, absolutely.

In a different time and place [the response to] Galileo would have been: “Well, yeah, that’s right. Let’s move on now”.   [Instead of being tried by the Inquisition, found suspect of heresy, forced to recant and spend the rest of his life under house arrest.]  The sad thing is you may have the most brilliant idea in the world, but you will never go anywhere.

Take a look historically at Charles Babbage.  I think he was a brilliant man who had some wonderful ideas; he was very audacious, and yet he’s a tragic figure because he never really understood how to turn his ideas into reality.  [A mathematician, philosopher, inventor and engineer; Babbage originated the idea of a programmable computer.]  That’s what ‘Capital I’ mean to me.  I think that’s why Steve Jobs was so brilliant; it’s not just that he had cool ideas, but he knew how to turn that into an industry.

We have a golden rule that it really doesn’t matter how cool your tech is if nobody’s using it. And it’s a shame because there are some incredible innovations out there, but so many innovators haven’t learned the Job’s magic of marketing.

KimmiC rule: It doesn’t matter how ‘bright the light’ if no one is using it to read.  

I think that’s especially true of our domain of computing systems, because we are ones who are most comfortable – as a gross generalisation – with controlling our machines.  Being able to connect with humans is a very different skill set. To find people who have the ability to do both is very, very challenging indeed.

Zuckerberg is a brilliant programmer, and he had the sense to surround himself with the right people so that he could make those things [Facebook] manifest.  There are probably dozens upon dozens of Zuckerbergs out there, who had similar ideas at the same time, but they didn’t know how to turn them into reality.

The same thing could be said of Tim Berners-Lee: a brilliant man, a nice man…  He was in the right time at the right place and he knew how to push the technology that he was doing.  He was developing things that were in a vast primordial soup of ideas.

Tim Berners-Lee

HyperCard was out; and why didn’t HyperCard succeed while Tim’s work did?  Part of it is technical, part of it just the will of Apple, and part was his [Tim] being in the right place at the right time.

And HyperCard influenced Tim.  Even Bill Atkinson, creator of HyperCard, said: if only he had come up with the notion of being able to link across [Hyper]card decks, then he would have invented the prototypical web.  But, he didn’t do it, he didn’t think about it.

Do you feel that you are ‘in the right time,  at the right place’?

There are times that I think I was born in the wrong century, but I know that if I had been born in the Middle Ages, at my age, I would be long dead.

So, yes, I can say from a very philosophical basis: I am quite content with the time in which I am now living, because I cannot conceive of any other time in which I could have been successful.

I read a quote on Wikipedia… a story you apparently told:

… I pounded the doors at the local IBM sales office until a salesman took pity on me. After we chatted for a while, he handed me a Fortran [manual]. I’m sure he gave it to me thinking, “I’ll never hear from this kid again.” I returned the following week saying, “This is really cool. I’ve read the whole thing and have written a small program. Where can I find a computer?” The fellow, to my delight, found me programming time on an IBM 1130 on weekends and late-evening hours. That was my first programming experience, and I must thank that anonymous IBM salesman for launching my career.”

It sounds like you were quite fortunate to have bumped into someone who was willing to take a chance with you very early on.

I think that’s fair to say.  Though, if it hadn’t been that person, I imagine the universe would have conspired to find me another person, because I was so driven.   Looking backward upon fifty-some years passed, that was the right time and place.  It may have just happened to be that was the right time and guy. But there would have been others.

Grady Presenting

[But] I haven’t told you about the missteps I had and the people who rejected me; we just talk about the successes.  Historians are the ones who write history. Because it’s the history of the winners, we don’t tend to write about the failures.  But even Edison pointed out… I forget the exact quote, but the reason he succeeded so much is he’s done so much and he’s failed; he’s failed more than others on an absolute basis, but he tried more.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ― Thomas A. Edison

What, in your view, gets in the way of the success of innovation?

I think the main thing is the fear of failure. I run across people like Babbage for example… or this gentleman I was mentoring earlier today, who are so fearful that they’re not doing something absolutely perfect, they are afraid to turn it into a reality. I think some innovators are so enamoured with perfection they are afraid to fail and therefore never do anything.

Within this milieu you seem to have had your fingers in many interesting pies.  One that I think must be especially fascinating is your work with the Computer History Museum.  How did you get involved in that?

In a way they came to me.  My interest has been in software, it always has been.  I forget the circumstances but, some years ago, I connected with John Toole, who was the original CEO of the Computer History Museum when it was in the Bay Area. He showed me around the warehouse that they had set aside at Moffett Airfield.

Not long before that they had shipped a lot of the materials from the old computer museum in Boston out to the Bay Area.  Gordon Moore [co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of Intel] and others had said they wanted to make a museum, and they funded that effort.  So, I was around the edges of it in the early days. I thought it was fascinating.

I think the reason it attracted me in the first place, in general, is that I have an interest in the appreciation of history, not just the history of technology, but just the history of humanity.

As I went to the exhibits I remember making the observation to John that I thought their plans were great, but, projecting out to one or two generations, there wasn’t going to be too much that was interesting to display in the museum because, by then, all of the hardware would have shrunk to a tiny size and we’d need microscopes in the exhibits.

“And so, therefore, John”, I said, “what are you doing about preserving the history of software,” which is a very ephemeral thing.

Think about getting the original source code to the [IBM Operating System] 360, or the original source code to Facebook.  Because these are such ephemeral things, people throw them away.  In fact we, IBM, no longer have the original source code to the first version of OS/360; it’s gone.  There are later versions but not the original one.

Facebook Source Code

When Microsoft decided to stop production on the Microsoft Flight Simulator, I mean, this was a ground-breaking program, I wrote off to Ray Ozzie [Microsoft CTO and CTA from 2005 - 2010] and said: “What are you guys going to do with the software? Can we have it?”   He munched around for a while, but I think it’s lost for all time.

We’re in an interesting period of time and my passion, which has led me to the museum, is to say: Now is to time to preserve software!  We don’t know how to present it, we don’t know what to do with it once we have it, but let’s worry about that in future generations and just capture it now.

It’s very similar to what Hollywood has found with a lot of their film stock. A lot of it was just being lost or destroyed, but there is so much cultural history in those records.

Yes, exactly.  So, prior to being on the board, I set up a workshop at the museum looking at the preservation of classic software.  I wrote to 500 of my ‘closest friends’… people ranging from Marvin Minsky [cognitive scientist in the field of AI] to some other developers I knew, and everybody in between, and asked: “What software would you preserve for future generations?”

We came up with a long list.  I think that very idea inspired Len Shustek, who’s the president of the museum, to invite me on to be on the board of trustees.

What is your favourite exhibit in the museum?

I like the [IBM] 1401 reproduction.  They have a couple of 1401 machines and they’ve gotten them running again.  It’s fun to be in a place where there is something dynamic and alive and runs and you can be in the midst of it.  Just walking into the room, you smell old computers; and that’s a pretty cool kind of smell.  So, is the fact it’s running and clacking away.

The 1401

Fred Brooks [IBM software engineer] and I had an interesting discussion once, in which I lamented the fact that our computers make no noise, because – and I know I sound like an old guy, but – I remember you could hear some of the earlier computers I worked on. They were clattering in one way or another, be it their hard drives or their tapes, and you could get a feel for where the program was just by listening.

You can’t do that now with our machines; they are all very, very quiet. So, the 1401 exhibit has this wonderful visceral immersive display, in which you hear it and smell it as it processes.

I’ve actually seen people get a little misty-eyed just thinking about a dial-up tone, and you certainly seem to have some ‘misty memories’ too.  But, let’s look forward now.  What new things do you think may be exhibited in ten years time.

I think that’s the next interesting challenge.  We know how to display physical things, but there aren’t that many more things like old machines, to collect because they are disappearing.

If you go to the exhibits, you’ll see things get smaller and smaller and there is more of an interest in software.  I think the interesting problem for the museum to attempt is: how do we present software to the general public so that we open the curtain on it and show some of the magic and the mystery therein.  I think software can be very beautiful, but how do I explain that to someone who can’t see software. That’s an interesting challenge.

You’ve got to look at it it like an art form.  Source code, especially some of the well-written stuff, looks physically beautiful; forget about what it actually does.  There are many different dimensions you can look at try to get people’s interest.

[Editors Challenge to artists: here is a piece of code I've 'mucked about with' 

- why not see what code inspires you to create and send us a picture, which we’ll share with our readers, Grady Booch and the Computer History Museum!]

I think it’s very much like modern art because you can look at a bit of an impressionistic painting and you may not get it. Often the reactions are: “My kid could do that kind of thing.”

Well, not exactly; because the more you learn about it, the more you learn how much that painting – or whatever the art form is –  speaks to you and tells you stories.  It requires a little bit of education.

There is a visceral reaction at first to some art but the more you know about it, the more you can appreciate its subtlety.  I think the same is true of software.  We (the museum) have collected the original source code to Mac Paint, which turns out to be a really beautiful piece of software.

I’m using a phrase here that has meaning to me – beautiful – but requires explanation to the general public to say: why is this a beautiful piece of code, why does it look so well-formed?  I think that’s a responsibility we have as insiders to explain and teach that kind of beauty.

What are your thoughts about the emerging trends in Innovation and technology?

Well, the web has been an amazing multiplier, and yet at the same time it’s also increased the noise.  Therefore, the ability to find the real gems in the midst of all this madness is increasingly challenging.  For example, with the computing project  [COMPUTING: The Human Experience] we’ve done, we crowdsourced some initial seed funding for our work.

We could not have done this in the past without something like the web.  We put this appeal out to the world and it gave us access to people, otherwise we could not have done it.  I think the web has produced an amazing primordial soup of ideas into which we can tap; and that is so game-changing in so many ways.  That’s probably the biggest thing. [You can contribute to and volunteer for the project here.]

The web has changed everything; and those who don’t keep up are doomed to be buggy web producers.

Yes, exactly.  Or companies like Kodak.

I had the opportunity to speak to Kodak’s developers about 15 years ago.  It was a small group of people who were in the computer side of Kodak, and I remember saying to them: “Look guys, the future of Kodak is in your hands… so, what are you going to do about it?”

I Tweeted about it not too long ago with a sort of “I told you so.”  And yet, I don’t know whether or not it was inevitable.  It could be the case that some businesses simply die because they just don’t make sense any more.

And they should die sometimes.  But I think early IBM was a good example of a company that understood what business it was in.  I don’t think Kodak really understood what business it was in, towards the end, and that’s what killed it.

I agree, very much so.

Some web business models are founded on the idea that a company has a right to use and profit from an individuals data and personal information… What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that that’s a business model that’s sustainable? I believe that the general public is wising up to this very quickly and are soon going to expect some recompense from the use of their data.

I think there is a local issue and there is global issue that is even harder to tackle.  In the case of the Facebooks and the Twitters of the world, the reality is when I subscribe to those services, I do have a choice – I can chose whether or not to use them.  And, by the very fact that I’m using those services means I am giving up something in the process.

So, why should I be outraged if those companies are using my data, because I’m getting those services for free.  It seems like a reasonable exchange here, and I, as an adult, have the responsibility of choice.  Where it becomes nasty is when I no longer have choice; when that choice is taken away from me.  That’s when it becomes outrageous: when my data is being used beyond my control [in a way] that I did not expect.

I think that will sort itself over time; capitalism has a wonderful way of sorting things.  It’s also the case that we have a generation behind the three of us who are growing up, if not born, digital.  They have a very different sense of privacy, so, I’m not so concerned about it. We have lots of ‘heat and smoke’ but it will resolve itself.

What I find curious is that the ‘heat and smoke’ and discussions are hardly any different from what was initially said about telephones or, for that matter, the printing of the book.  Look at some histories of how phones were brought into the marketplace and you’ll find almost identical arguments to those that are going on today.

I trust the human spirit and the way capitalism works to find a way.  What’s more challenging is the larger issue, and that is the reality that there are connections that can be made in the presence of this data that are simply beyond anybody’s control.

I may choose to share some information on a social media source, or I may use a credit card or whatever, but the very act of participating in the modern society leaves behind a trail of digital detritus.  And I can’t stop that unless I choose to stop participating in the modern world.

I think this is a case where we’ll have politicians do some profoundly stupid things, and we’ll see lots of interesting cases around it.  But, we’ll get used to it.  I mean, people didn’t like the idea of putting their money in a bank for God’s sake, and we got used to it; I think the same thing will happen.

You brought up the Millennials – the digitised generation. What insights would you give them in being game-changers?”

Does any young adult ever want the advice of their elders?

I didn’t ask if they wanted it… :)

You know… I think, we laugh about it, but the reality is – and I think Jobs said it well: “Death is a wonderful invention because it allows us to get out of the way and let the next generation find their own way.”  I’m comforted by that; I find great peace in that notion.  They need to have the opportunity to fail and find their own way.  If I were born a Millennial, I’d be growing up in an environment that’s vastly different than mine.

Though, in the end, we are all born, we all die, and we all live a human experience in various ways, there are common threads there… the stories are the same for all of us.  I think those are the kinds of things that are passed on from generation to generation, but everything else is details.

I would not be surprised if the structuring of their brain is different to ours.  I’ve been talking to guys that are 10 – 15 years younger than me, and the ability to hold their train of thought over weeks or months – when you’re doing some serious development or research – they seem to find that extremely difficult.  So, I wonder if we’ll see any really big innovations coming through from those generations.

You could claim that it’s not just the web that’s done that, but it’s back to Sesame Street and the notion of bright, shiny objects that are in and out of our view in a very short time frame.  Certainly I think a case can be made that our brains are changing; we are co-evolving with computing – we truly are.

But, at the same time, throw me in the woods and I couldn’t find my way out of it easily; I can’t track myself well, I can’t tell you what things are good to eat and what things aren’t.  Those are survival skill that someone would have needed to have had a century or two ago.  So, my brain has changed in that regard, just as the Millennials’ brains are changing. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? I’m not at a point to judge it, but it is a thing.

End of Part Two.  Part Three will be published next week – sign up for the blog and it will be delivered directly to your inbox!

You can learn more about Grady via the COMPUTING: The Human Experience website, Grady’s blog and his Twitter feed. Be sure to keep your eye on the COMPUTING: The Human Experience YouTube channel where Grady’s lecture series will be posted.

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

3 responses to “Zen and the Art of Software: The Innovation Interview with Grady Booch (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Zen and the Art of Software: The Innovation Interview with Grady Booch | kimmicblog

  2. Pingback: Zen and the Art of Software: The Innovation Interview with Grady Booch (Part 3) | kimmicblog

  3. This style is incredible! You undoubtedly know how to maintain a reader amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own weblog (properly, almost…HaHa!) Great job. I actually loved what you had to say, and a lot more than that, how you presented it. Too cool! 785776

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