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May 31, 2008 11:00 AM

The Jim Gray Tribute: Microsoft perspective, "smartest guy in the world"

Posted by Brier Dudley

BERKELEY, Calif.: From Microsoft Chief Technical Officer David Vaskevitch's speech on Jim Gray:

"Around 1990 when I started to think about the idea of Microsoft getting into the enterprise space and the database industry a lot of people thought that was a crazy idea both inside Microsoft and moreso outside Microsoft ... I started asking around and this name came up over and over, Jim Gray. The interesting thing was the initial context in which it came up was, he was the one person who, no matter who I asked, everybody thought he was smarter."

Extending this out, "you'd always get back to, the smartest person in the world must be Jim Gray."

"Microsoft is populated by a lot of very smart people. The smater they are, generally the more antihuman they are. Usually they fall into this kind of solipstic world where the only things that exist are the things they're thinking about ... Jim was in the opposite direction."

Vaskevitch listed three dimensions of Gray's contributions.

The first and most obvious: "a lot of the core concepts that we take for granted in the database industry and even more broadly in the computer industry are concepts that Jim helped to create."

The second contribution was even larger - the organization of the industry, through connections made by Gray.

When Vaskevitch was trying to convince people to come to the remote wilds of Redmond to help Microsoft build its enterprise business, Gray was always a few steps ahead.

"Inevitably, I would call the person up - sometimes they would tell me they wanted to talk to Jim Gray. Usualy they had talked to Jim about the phone call I was going to make before I was even going to make it."

In terms of Gray's most famous contribution to computing:

"You could think of him as transcation coordinator - with people moving around industry ... he made sure people never got left in midflight."

Gray's amazing mentoring and networking, regardless of employers, made him the equivalent of "the heart and sould of an entire industry."

Third was Gray's personal skills, the way he listened, supported and connected people.

"I believe that Jim's most important contribution was the way he connected with people,'' he said.

Getting people to change their code can be a challenge, but Gray could get people to think about ways to make their work better.

"Jim's ability to make you feel that he really cared about your life because he really did care about your life .... his ability to have those kinds of personal relationships with so many of us, that to me really defines Jim."

Rick Rashid, Microsoft research senior vice president, said Gray "is the kind of person you'd want your child to grow up to be like."

Among Rashid's recollections were seeing Gray poke his head through a gap in the great wall of China and riding a toboggan down a mountain from a Buddhist temple.

"The reason we had a research group in San Fransisco was because of Jim. If Jim wanted to move to Monaco, we;d have a research group in Monaco. That wasn't actually a joke."

UW Professor Ed Lazowska said he thought he had a special relationship with Gray because he was constantly talking with him about all sorts of topics.

It turns out Lazowska wasn't alone.

"I thought I had a special relationship with Jim. What's astonishing is I didn't. What's special is Jim (who) had relationships like this with hundreds of people."

Other tidbits: Gray had different styles of mentoring - "he knew when to nurture and when to get out the hammer."

He took "enormous professional risks - he was a managers worst nightmare." Gray wanted to work on what he wanted to work on, and he was ready to quit the next day if he couldn't.

Microsoft Architect Pat Helland said he came to idolize Gray when he was 22 at a database startup in the late 1970s. Boning up on how to build a database management system, he came across Gray's literature.

"You were just enthralled to understand what he was saying and how clearly and crisply he was making you understand the things he knew."

A few years later Helland left to work at Tandem with Gray, who became his mentor.

"Jim always listened - listened and looked and pulled out of me what was in my life and my career and what were my dilemnas both personal and professional. As I would talk out my problems and he would gently say things ... I'd go forward full of energy and knowing how to do things."

Helland also shared Gray's rules for authoring papers:

1. The guy who types puts his name first.
2. It's easier to add a name (sharing authorship) than to deal with hurt feelings.

"That made a dynamic where there was only upside working with Jim ... I co-authored a paper with Jim and I wasn't even looking."

Helland closed with a quote:

"Jimi Hendrix once said knowledge speaks but wisdom listens. Jim Gray wrote and spoke an astonishing amount ... but even more so he listened more than he wrote and that fulfulled so much."

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