A couple of buddies pointed me toward Sys-Con Media’s Top 150 Information Technology Heroes, and I have to admit it was fun (once you click past the obstructing ad anyway). While my first reaction was to want to point out omissions (see below), what’s not to like about a list that mixes Dennis Ritchie, Luca Cardelli, Edsger Dijkstra, and Charles Babbage?
However, you have to get a bit cranky with the fact that Jim Gray was left out. (His omission is even more surprising given recent events should have kept him on the authors’ mind.) Jim’s work on transactions was foundational for both relational databases and transaction processing (TP) monitors. Moreover, the whole web/Java application server category (WebLogic, WebSphere, .NET, …) is really just a TP monitor rearchitected for web processing. (By the way, the reason it was not called a web/Java TP monitor in the first place is that the venture capitalists would not fund start-ups to build a next-generation TP monitor. But a Web application server? Well, that sounds like a whole new category.)
And if you are going to recognize both James Gosling and Josh Bloch for their Java contributions (here here), then Arthur van Hoff probably ought to be included too. I think the list could also have used some more distributed systems contributors (data/file sharing, function shipping such as via messaging or remote procedure call), but as an old programming languages hand, it was great to see that category well represented. The quibbles could go on.
Instead, let me make a different and perhaps more important observation: one of the most intriguing aspects of the information technology industry is the way that it is both an individual and a team “sport.” One of the things that is striking about the list is how different are the contributions of, say, a Steve Jobs versus those of an extraordinary architect/programmer (there are many on the list) versus those of a Turing award winner whose thinking transcends products and technologies. Many of the IT heroes on the list have the ability to look at complex problems, and find simple, elegant solutions (think spreadsheets or hyperlinks) that change the industry. Teams often grow up around such leaders, leaders that can supply the one or two elusive insights that make the difference in delivering an extraordinary technology.
At the same time, most innovations come out of a team rather than an individual. Java and WebLogic were, for example, staunchly team efforts (although Bob Pasker is definitely the right choice for recognizing a WebLogic team member, given his contributions in architecture, innovation, coding, and in helping recruit the rest of the team). After all, it takes a team to deliver an information technology product. Through the frequently ad hoc collaboration of gifted talents, the whole really does become greater than the sum of the parts. Magic can result. Getting to be a part of that process makes all of the long days and hard work worthwhile.
So best to check your ego at the door, I think, and find a really smart team to work with. (To reuse an old joke, I think I may have lowered the average IQ by joining Zimbra.) Ronald Reagan had a plaque sitting on his desk that said “There is no limit to what a man can accomplish if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”