Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Moving and Shaking

When I was a younger man, the expression "movers and shakers" was frequently used to indicate people who made a difference, or who led out in an industry. Part of me would have liked to have done some of that, but the rest of me knew it wasn't in my nature.

The closest I came, until the story that I'm telling in this post, was as a teenager when I decided to start a company to manufacture modular transistor radios. Pretty innovative for 1963. I knew that I'd have to raise capital, so I began selling shares in the enterprise. One boy gave me a dime. The next day, he wanted to know where his "chair" was, so I gave him back the dime, and abandoned the plan.

In the mid 1980's, I became aware of a relatively new idea in computer science, now called "object-oriented programming". After spending some time learning Smalltalk, I became somewhat of an expert, and was soon working at WordPerfect Corporation on a Smalltalk-like system (described in my dissertation).

While working there (1988-1995), our small group attended all of the OOPSLA conferences. The first one we went to was in San Diego, and my niece and nephew, who lived there, started calling me "Uncle Oopsla."

After a few years of attendance, I got ambitious and asked for a chance to be on the program committee. As a result, I was invited to be a member of that committee for the 10th OOPSLA conference, to be held in Austin, Texas. Being on the program committee meant that I was asked to referee (review submitted papers, evaluate them, and give feedback to the authors). Then, a few months before the conference, the committee met in the San Jose area to make the final decisions as to which papers would be invited to the conference, and which would be rejected.

It was fairly easy at first. There were a number of papers that were really good, and everyone agreed to include them. There were more that weren't so good, and everyone agreed to reject them. Then, a lot of time was spent going through the others, and discussing them. For each one, there was a vote. If someone felt really strongly about it, they got a few minutes to present their thoughts to the entire committee. Sometimes one person could win over enough votes to get a paper accepted.

When we got to a paper that I had refereed, it only got one positive vote, and that was mine. So, then I had a quick decision to make. Did I just let it go, or did I fight for it?

I stood up and gave a quick defense of the paper, and explained why I thought it was innovative and deserved a spot in the conference. Many of the committee members, exhausted by the long day, looked irritated. We took a break. A few of them talked with me individually. After the break, we took another vote and the paper was in. The rest is history.

That was my one time at making a difference in an industry. I was now truly a mover and shaker to some small degree. Well, its a pretty minor thing really. But there you have it.

At the conference, I made it a point to attend the oral presentation of "SmartFiles: An OO approach to data file interoperability." And, it lived up to my hopes for it. I don't know if it made the slightest difference to the authors' careers, or to the success of the concept. I'm sure the ideas would have been published elsewhere if the paper had been rejected for OOPSLA.

No one knows about my role in this. Well, until now anyway.


Myrna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Myrna said...

Sorry, I wish these things had spell-checkers. I said approximately this:
I think I started out with a mover and shaker personality, and somewhere along the line, I lost it. I guess it comes from getting shaken up and moved over or through by even more dynamic movers and shakers. Now I have become quite reticent. I do serve on committees, but do not have the courage to do much with those assignments. Maybe I have just gotten tired, too. But I am very proud of you for standing up for the paper you referreed. It made a difference to YOU, if to no one else. Thank you for sharing this.