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Kalen Delaney

Did You Know: Jim Gray Tribute at UC Berkeley

Almost as soon as the event was over, this blog post appeared on the NY Times site:

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/31/a-tribute-to-jim-gray-sometimes-nice-guys-do-finish-first/index.html

The author neglected to mention that in addition to the fact that “The audience was a cross-section of the computer industry’s best and brightest”, it also included regular people, like me. I flew down to the Bay Area on Friday with my husband, and spent the day on the UC Berkeley campus, where I had been a student for 8 years, and lecturer for another 4. Although I was not there concurrently with Jim, we had many professors and colleagues in common. Attending the tribute and the technical sessions afterwards was an awesome experience.

At end of morning, we had about 15 minutes before lunch, right after a couple of speakers were sharing about Jim's early days at IBM and Tandem. The moderator, Mike Stonebraker, asked audience members to share their stories and recollections of Jim from the 70's and 80's. I assumed there would be another chance in the afternoon for people to share stories from the 90's and beyond, but that didn't happen. So I will share my story here.

As I was finishing my first book (upgrading Ron Soukup's Inside SQL Server, from version 6.5 to version 7) I needed to find someone to write the foreword. Jim Gray, who I only knew about from his book, had written the foreword to the 6.5 edition, and I asked a few colleagues at Microsoft if they thought he might agree to write a foreword for me. I was encouraged to contact him, and right after I sent the email to him, I discovered that he had just been awarded the Turing Award! Well of course, I couldn't expect that a Turing Award winner would respond to an email from a nobody like me, so I started looking around for someone else. I didn't spend long in the search, because Jim responded in a day, saying he'd be delighted to write the foreword, and also asking if I was going to be at the PASS conference.

This was in 1998, and the very first PASS conference was being held in Chicago. I told him I was going to be there, and he suggested getting together for coffee. What could I say but "OK"?

I arrived in Chicago late in the evening and stumbled into a strange hotel and went to bed. Chicago was 2-hours earlier than my normal time zone, so I planned on sleeping until 8:30. At 7 AM, the phone rang.  To the day, I clearly remember my impulse to shout into the phone "What in &#%* do you want at this ungodly hour in the morning?" But I stifled that impulse, and to this day I am grateful to my guardian angel for that decision. Because, as I'm sure you guessed, it was Jim. In a bright and chipper voice he asked "Would you like to go get a cup of coffee now?". Of course, I REALLY needed some. So we had coffee. And a wonderful meeting. I still think about that phone call, and try to remember to always answer the phone cheerfully, because you never know who is calling. I'm not always successful, but I try. And knowing Jim, and based on what I heard about on Saturday, I would guess that even if I hadn't stifled my first impulse, Jim would have forgiven me. He would have just apologized for the early call, and asked me out for coffee anyway.

I met with Jim several more times after that over the years, including once by accident in the Microsoft cafeteria. He asked me to join him for lunch. I imagined he would be lunching with a group of people and was asking me to join the group, but it turned out he was by himself and just wanted someone to sit with. I was glad I was there. We talked about teaching and training, and how amazing he found it that some people could actually type while they talked!

I just searched and found over 20 emails from Jim still in my Outlook folders, and in fact he's under 500 in my Xobni rankings. I doubt I'll ever be able to delete those mails.

So Jim did write the foreword for my first book, as you can see:

image

He also wrote the foreword for my next 2 books. But by the one after that, he was gone. So I dedicated that book to him.

You can read about Jim's accomplishments on his site at Microsoft Research:
http://research.microsoft.com/~gray/

~Kalen

Published Monday, June 02, 2008 2:53 PM by Kalen Delaney
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Scott R. said:

Kalen,

Thanks for sharing your personal experiences with Jim Gray.  It was good to see you at the tribute.

I, too, was just one of the regular people attending along with some of the industry and academic luminaries.  I was generally aware of Jim’s contributions prior to the event, but was taken back by the level of attendance.  One news report said it was close to 1,000 people.

I was always impressed with his writings and the topics he chose to discuss.  He had an ability to describe complex things clearly, and to choose topics that were most appropriate for pragmatic use.  In contrast, my experience has been that many research papers tend to be narrowly focused on topics that may not be immediately (or sometimes ever) applicable to real-life situations.

Beside reading his papers and following his work over the years, I had the chance to meet and talk with Jim on two occasions: first at a Microsoft conference about ten years ago and most recently at a talk he gave at Georgia Tech a few years back.  In both cases, he was very approachable, genuinely interested in what you had to say, and willing to share his perspective on topics or questions you posed – a theme that was echoed many times by people at the tribute.  As David Vaskevich said at the tribute: for most people, the smarter they are, the more anti-human they are.  No so with Jim - very smart and very human!

I also enjoyed the notable quotes at the tribute:

-  Jim Gray – responding to someone’s statement / concern about being overshadowed by famous industry people around them: “It’s cooler in the shade!”

-  Pat Helland quoting Jimi Hendrix: “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”

During a lunch discussion with others around the table at the tribute, it occurred to me that the day’s recollections of Jim’s accomplishments were much like the Frank Capra film “It’s A Wonderful Life”:

-  What would the world be like had that person never existed?

   and

-  You don’t realize how much a single person can contribute to others until they are gone

We all could learn a lot from Jim and the way he lived his life.

I am glad I could attend the tribute.

Scott R.

June 4, 2008 12:41 PM
 

Scott R. said:

Update: I recently learned that UC Berkeley has webcast and podcast versions of the Jim Gray Tribute sessions at the following link:

http://webcast.berkeley.edu/event_details.php?webcastid=23082&p=1&ipp=15&category=

Scott R.

June 5, 2008 4:45 PM

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