Software Tools and Punchcards

Remembering a Mentor

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Building slick IT products out of Bell Labs technology is one of the many things I owe Bob.

When I was the new kid at the University of Georgia’s Computer Center and still very much on the early end of the learning curve, I spent many hours in Bob’s office. Thankfully, he loved sharing what he knew almost as much as he loved learning it. And he knew a great deal.

Bob was a dozen years older than I and got his start when the IBM 7094 was king and the upstart System/360 was just announced. From the beginning, he had a natural talent for computing. He was tall, a bit on the heavy side, and had a grin that communicated both the joy he had for his craft and the mischievousness of his spirit.

My office at the time was behind a glass wall designed to show off the Computer Center with its mainframes, rows of washing-machine sized disk drives, and a collection of printers so large it would take four sizable movers to relocate them.

The glass’s true purpose, however, was to prevent casual observers from wandering into the inner sanctum, a holy-of-holies reserved for the high priests of IT. This room was reserved for operators and systems programmers, a room for which I had newly been allowed access. I had my own office, in fact.

Bob had an office there as well, and one day I noticed a book laying on his desk: Software Tools. As I flipped through the pages, Bob encouraged me to give it a read. He insisted I take the copy with me, which was typical of his generosity.

Looking back at my life, I can pinpoint “deflector” moments that changed everything (like when the beautiful young woman sat a row ahead of me in algebra class--we’d eventually marry and decades later she still sometimes helps me with math). Discovering Software Tools became a major deflector moment in my professional life.

Written by Brian Kernighan and P. J. Plauger, Software Tools teaches how to program using the Bell Labs approach.

I consumed it and realized I needed to learn more about these researchers. What was it about Bell Labs that made these folks so clear and succinct about the otherwise confusing world of computing?

This question would lead me to have an office across from Brian Kernighan during a very brief tenure at Bell Labs. Almost all my technology is inspired by him and his peers.

But without Bob, I don’t know if I would have discovered Software Tools.

Just outside the machine room where Bob and I worked together was the University of Georgia’s Graduate Studies offices. It was there that Bob would hold court with us newbies. Grad students and fellow employees would sit around and listen to Bob talk.

He started in the early days of mainframes, working in punch card shops. These were pre-computer machines that used customer wired plugboards for reading and punching cards. They were mechanical devices with no real electronics to speak of.

By the time Bob arrived at the university, they had added mainframes into the mix. He learned to program on first generation tube machines that even back then were quickly being replaced by second-generation transistor cards.

He mentioned that students would get extra credit for completing assignments using one card.

“One card?” I asked, “What language did you program in?”

“Language?” he laughed, “ No language. Just octal digits. Machine code.”

From these conversations, Bob taught me how the IBM mainframes actually worked. He explained how memory was divided up into multiple virtual address spaces. He showed me how multiple jobs ran on machines before virtual address spaces. He clarified how both the new bipolar memory and the older core memory worked (which was still in use when I was a student!).

One time he completed one of my assembler language assignments in 20 minutes flat, all at his wife Freda’s blackboard. It was a work of art. His logical mind combined with his years of experience let the code flow into a perfect solution.

Bob passed away in 2010, but I think of him often. I hope I can inspire and guide the next generation of computer scientists with the same generosity and big-heartedness that Bob showed me.

About the Author

Brantley CoileInventor, coder, and entrepreneur, Brantley Coile invented Stateful packet inspection, network address translation, and Web load balancing used in the Cisco LocalDirector. He went on to create the Coraid line of storage appliances, a product he continues to improve today.

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