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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

May 31, 2008 at 12:16 PM

More Gray Tribute: Contributions to “life as we know it”

BERKELEY, Calif.: Technical sessions in the afternoon began with recollections by Gray’s co-workers at IBM, where he worked from 1972 to 1980, and Tandem, a seminal Silicon Valley computer company.

Bruce Lindsay talked about working with Gray at IBM and Gray’s monumental work on transaction processing.

“Online transactions today are key to life as we know it. If the online transactions systems stopped today you would be stuck in Berkeley until they started up again.”

Lindsay went on to explain how crucial the technology is to financial systems – “credit reports, identity theft – all these things made possible. Overbooking – couldn’t do that without transactions. No-fly list, brought to you by Jim Gray.”

More seriously, the technology is “critical today in the developed world and increasingly in the developed world.”

Accounts receivable, inventory and fulfillment all involve transactions processing, and the technology reduces recordkeeping costs and delays, reducing the cost of doing a transaction.

“If that expense can be reduced both the customer and provider can benefit,” he explained, noting for example that ATM transaction costs have fallen from $5 to less than a cent.

Gray “refined the transaction concept and explained to us what its basic properties are, then he went on to show us how to do it.”

He was already a legend when Tandem began trying to recruit him.

One factor in the company’s favor may have been that Gray was driving 75 miles each way to work at IBM’s San Jose lab. Another was that Tandem was a sort of playground for Gray, a small company where he could get involved in everything from hardware to middleware at a company focused on transaction processing.

It was audacious to recruit Gray, a star at the overwhelmingly dominant tech company of the day, but Jerry Held started trying in 1976.

“In 1980 my phone rings and it’s Jim. Jim says I’ve decided to come to work at Tandem … I said would you like to hear the financial offer? He said no, you can tell me when I get there next week,” Held said.

“Clearly he made a lot of money in his career, he did well financially, but it was never about the money. He worked at four companies but it was never about the company – it was about moving the industry forward, working with great people.”

During a break before lunch, members of the audience shared anecdotes.

One remembered being at a paper’s presentation when a sandal-wearing man with long, stringy hair marched up the aisle and loudly said “That research has already been done… who reviewed this paper?”

The man told the presenter that it wasn’t his fault, his issue was with whoever should have screened the work.

She asked who that man was, and of course it was Jim Gray.

Another Bay Area colleague recalled early days working with Gray at IBM in New York, where he went after graduating from Berkeley.

Gray didn’t like the winters and asked to transfer to IBM’s research lab in his native California. The boss said no, so Gray quit and drove across the country in his Volkswagen. In California, he went to the IBM lab, asked for a job and was hired.

Later, the friend from New York received an unsigned postcard from Gray with a picture of a sailboat in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Another person, who studied with Gray and recently served with him on the ACM review board, recalled being in meetings where there would be long, rancorous debates. Gray would sit quietly at the end of the table then start talking, and everyone would quiet down to listen.

“He would summarize everything we’d been saying in about three sentences. We’d all go, that’s pretty obvious.”



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