Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘Xerox PARC’

New Insights into Familiar Friends

In computer science, research on September 23, 2011 at 12:55 pm

I’ve always felt lucky that I’ve had multiple jobs in the course of my career. Modulo the research statement, and the recruiting process, and the visa issues that that all came with, other than that it’s been a good thing ūüôā For example, I can compare and contrast experiences and learn from that. I feel so lucky to have met so many talented and creative researchers, and worked alongside them in different contexts.

So, today I want to describe another reason, which is the new insights I’ve gained into the technologies that had seemed like familiar friends.

At Bell Labs, I learned that the company had had marine biology research foci. I knew that Bell Labs had had an amazing history of innovation in unlikely areas for the telephone company (for example, the creation of the first synthetic version of the B12 vitamin). So, when I learnt about marine biology I thought how wonderful it was that the Labs continued this tradition of commitment to science. But I was soon corrected. Marine biologists are very central to telephony, because some surprising percentage of underwater cables are break  because they are a tasty meal for aquatic life. The Internet was, and remains, vulnerable to shark attacks.

At Xerox it was high-speed printers. Truthfully, after one of them printed out my dissertation quickly, they were a source of resentment for me. My thesis took months to write and less than three minutes to print. But one day while standing by one of these high-speed printers someone explained to me how they were designed to ensure both high speed while minimizing flammability. And it had never occurred to me how significant it is to design a high speed printer so that the paper is pushed quickly but in such ways that it does not catch fire.

I have no idea how you protect the Internet from the living or ensure that a printer won’t catch fire, but both of these encounters briefly opened up these technologies for me in ways that I had not considered. Familiarity was challenged by a realization that there was “a lot more going on here” than I had ever realized. And having that experience multiple times, shaped by companies who had to have a staff with a collective knowledge that reflected that “there’s a lot more going on here than you realize” is another reason I am so glad to have spent time in different places. Bell Labs and Xerox taught me through these sorts of encounters that technology is all about complexity.

Computer Science: Why I care

In academia, computer science, discipline, HCI, research on October 14, 2009 at 6:23 am

As I’ve said before, I’m very interested in disciplinary evolution. There are many reasons, but one of them is that I’ve been discussed as an example of someone who is not a Computer Scientist. At least three things bother me about this discussion. First, these criticisms are largely said about me and not to me. Second, it assumes that the discipline of Computer Science can be defined, and¬†I don’t think evidence supports that. While I don’t completely agree with Eden’s arguments (as an example of writing about multi-paradigmatic behaviour in CS), I do concur that we’re proceeding in multiple distinct paradigms that come with different, possibly irreconcilable methodological, ontological, and epistemological assumptions, which makes me wonder whether we do collectively know what the discipline of Computer Science is all about. Third, the criticism also dismisses the commitments I’ve made to my profession as well as the assessments I have had by others regarding the role of my research in the field of Computer Science (an obvious example, I publish in conferences that are mostly sponsored by the ACM, the professional association for Computer Science researchers, and others cite my work in other Computer Science conferences).

I have three degrees, all in Computer Science. While degrees do not make a Computer Scientist, I would suggest that they give me many years of training for understanding what is included in Computer Science.¬†But degrees can not define a Computer Scientist. After all some of most significant innovations come from people who don’t have degrees in Computer Science. No-one is what their degrees say they are, it’s what they choose to do and why.

So, my commitment to Computer Science was cemented in graduate school. I went to graduate school at UC Irvine. The other day I found a paper that discussed the program I was in in graduate school (the Computers, ORganizations, Policy and Society (CORPS) group). It was not HCI, although it was similar, it was focused on Computing as an empirical science, combining a priori theories that can explain technologies in use-context, with a posteriori empirical analysis of what happened when technologies were deployed in particular contexts. I was hooked, this made the Computer Science of numerical analysis, formal methods, graphics, make sense to me.

Three and a half years later I graduated with an MS and PhD. My thesis work explained how dependencies in code reflected dependencies in the division of labor, and showed how these labor relationships were not being accounted for in the processes used to develop software. Because of this, I received an offer of employment at Bell Labs, and I joined the Computer Science research division of Bell Labs. My job description, continue to do Computer Science research on the human-centered problems that continue to plague software development (in 1960’s it was a crisis, in the 1990’s it became a chronic crisis, and apparently hell).¬†I’ve written about how amazing this time was, how much I learnt. Bell Labs demanded excellence in science, it was a world-class research laboratory, and so it held us all to the highest standards of research in our discipline: Computer Science. So, each year I continued to do research in this space and had the honour (it was terrifying at times) to have my performance assessed by the type of people whose contributions to Computer Science are central to the discipline. But, of course this was simultaneously the privilege of working at Bell Labs, to have your own standards set by people who made Computer Science.

Four years later it was clear that Bell Labs was going to go through what many nationally acclaimed scientific laboratories go through: downsizing. I joined the Computer Science Laboratory at Xerox PARC, as a member of the Distributed Systems area (why this comes as a surprise to people I do not know). CSL was very similar to Bell Labs, but PARC is physically smaller than Bell Labs was. So, that made it more intense, the evidence of PARCs contributions to Computer Science were everywhere, you could physically see them (like the Ethernet). Again, what I was responsible for doing was to advance Computer Science, that’s how I was judged.

So, my entire career through Bell Labs and Xerox PARC was as a practitioner of the research of Computer Science. That’s who mentored me, set the standards, and evaluated my contributions, with the help of external communities of researchers who accepted my papers into journals and conferences in the discipline of Computer Science.

From there I joined Georgia Tech, and one day I discovered ¬†that I was in the School of Interactive Computing. And I like it very much. But, I think there’s some confusion about whether Interactive Computing is Computer Science. To me the answer is obvious, it’s the third paradigm of Computer Science. Its an empirical experimental discipline, drawing on a priori theory to inform computer program design, some of which are programs designed to push new computational space (such as robotics), others of which are designed to probe phenomena (like learning and how people do so). We use empirical scientific investigation to determine whether we have been successful, and if we have not what has failed. It is the science of computing that is the raison d’etre for Interactive Computing.

To those who have told someone, but not me, that I don’t do Computer Science this is my response. Computer Science is complicated to define, and we’d all be better served understanding it more deeply. And I am lucky to have had a career where the standards of engagement and assessment were set by people¬†whose contributions to Computer Science are clear: who have collectively done the important work of defining the field. And I will also note here that I never heard any of those people discussing who was not Computer Science, they were far to busy trying to actually develop the field.¬†Finally, I want to close with the comment that I am categorized as a minority in Computer Science because I am a woman. I struggle with that categorization, but I believe that some of the choices I made professionally have come with higher costs for me than they would if I had been a man.¬†So, one reason I am very committed to Computer Science is that I’ve given a lot to it, but it came with costs‚ÄĒthings I reluctantly¬†gave up to pursue a career in Computer Science.

30th Anniversary of Ethernet

In computer science, discipline, empirical, research on June 15, 2009 at 9:49 pm

Reading back through my blog I notice that there’s a focus on one of my two previous employers Bell Labs. I’ve been lucky, I’ve had two amazing previous jobs, Bell Labs and Xerox PARC. But, for a variety of reasons some of the most significant lessons I learned, I learned at Bell Labs. ¬†Given the focus of this blog, that’s not surprising in a way, the lessons I am frequently drawing on are ones of implementation. ¬†At PARC, I was more isolated from Xerox, given that it was largely on the other side of the country (well that’s how it felt). ¬†Bell Labs sheer sustained scientific history, that was a bit terrifying also… but it’s not like PARC was not amazing.

And one day sums it up quite well.

I was the only current employee of PARC who gave a talk at the 30th Anniversary of Ethernet event that PARC hosted. I can tell you many reasons why that was the case, and all of them speak to forms of excellence, although which story of excellence I tell depends precisely on who you are…

The opening address was by Bob Metcalfe. Bob, who came back to visit also walked around CSL. It was fun to learn that his office was currently being occupied by Keith Edwards.  Bob Metcalfe talks from note cards. The note cards are annotated with wonderful pictures. I knew this because I had seen some of the diagrams in his original account of Ethernet. I was delighted to see them in person as he talked.

He gave a talk called Ethernet vs. Godzilla. I know because I still have my program. There’s one in the Computer History Museum. Cool.

There were many other talks and panels that day.

What was amazing to me was the sheer number of people who were there. On that day I had an opportunity to meet Vint Cerf, David Liddle, Judy Estrin, David Boggs, Bob Taylor, Andy Bechtolsheim, and Ann Winblad among many others.

So there I was surrounded and alone. ¬†I was surrounded by a who’s who of the invention of the things that I am using to write this blog, and that I study. ¬†I was alone in that I hardly knew where to begin. And many of these people knew each other. A circle of innovation.

It was a day where I learnt so much. It reinforced a lessons I thought I had already known, but it really solidified it for me. There was a reception for everyone who had presented. I did a lot of listening. The conversations were mind-boggling, these were people who had frequently leapt from one success to another. It felt that way to me. And what I never heard was discussion divided along disciplinary lines. Here were some of the people who not only changed the world of computing practice, but of Computer Science research. And I had the distinct impression that they did it without too much regard to which area of speciality they were in, whether it was an appropriate contribution for that area.

PARC was much bigger than the 30th Anniversary of Ethernet. ¬†It was a place where anyone who worked in Computer Science wanted to see. It was an interesting place to see. I worked quite close to one of the pads that Mark Weiser and others built to experiment with a Ubiquitous Computing future (we won’t talk about the time I crashed it, whoops). I was in the building the night that they removed most, but not all, the original ethernet and put it in dumpsters as part of the upgrading. ¬†Funnily enough that was the night I left with some cable. And even funnier to me, it’s in my office, and every day people walk right past it … and perhaps they just think it’s old cord or more of the junk that populates my office.

But it is computer history, and one that was built by people who at least to me, who on that day was very much an outsider peaking into a world of Computer Science research of the highest impact, just seemed to want to work on good problems and produce creative results. In so doing they defined Computer Science. Wow.