Tony McCann - 1982

Tony McCann – A Brilliant Coder

Of course one of the greatest programmers I had the pleasure to know whilst at college was omitted from My Top Ten Programmers post. His name was Tony McCann and he was my joint Ph.D. advisor. Although John Tucker spent more time with me, Tony’s pragmatic approach and amazing coding knowledge was always helpful to me.

Tony was one of those real coders that began before we had the luxury of compilers and high level languages. He was certainly no Quiche Eater and could out code us all.

I’m reminded of the time when I was attending one of his lectures and he was doing some calculations on those huge scrolling chalk boards they had in those days. At some point some brave soul put up his hand and said: “Dr. McCann I think you have that calculation wrong.” Tony whirled around looking perplexed as he studied the student then looked again at the board. He then realized his mistake and told everyone: “Ah yes, sorry, I was thinking in Hex.” Of course you were Tony!

He was a great character and an amazing coder and I always appreciated his help and insights. Thanks Tony!

By now you’ll have realized that I have a slight reverence for Bill Joy and so I feel compelled to talk about the first time I met him. It was back in 2000 and there was all this buzz about the article he wrote in Wired Magazine entitled: “Why the future doesn’t need us.” He spoke over lunch and discussed his views and every word was enthralling. At the end of his talk people all clamored to speak to him. I found myself standing right in front of Bill Joy with all these other guys going on about his talk. All I could think about was how this man had influenced my life with Vi, Csh, BSD, NFS, etc. and instead of talking about his lunchtime talk I started blabbing on about how grateful I was for all of his amazing contributions. It was very uncool in the context of the meeting and he looked at me as though I was a whack job.

I was a whack job.  I could hardly string together a sentence, I was so in awe of this man. I eventually pulled myself together but it was too late and his attention had moved on. I felt like a real tool.

Luckily, as I was leaving the room a little while later, I saw him walking down the corridor alone. Instead of going on about how great he was I remembered that he had a young daughter and I gave him my Magic business card and said to him: “Mr. Joy I enjoyed your talk very much, if you ever need a real magician to entertain your daughter, just give me a call and I’ll be there.” He first looked at me with suspicion, but as he read the card – Magic and Mystery for Select Occasions – a big smile came over his face and he thanked me and went on his way.

Just for that instant we connected and I felt that I had redeemed my earlier mistakes. I felt so happy that afternoon.

Bill Joy - A Truly Exceptional Programmer

Bill Joy – A Truly Exceptional Programmer

Before I get too old to remember I thought I’d post the names of the amazing programmers that have had the most influence on not only my career but my life:

  1. Bill Joy – for pretty much everything, see this post.
  2. Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson – for Unix.
  3. Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie – for the “C” Programming Language.
  4. Alfred Aho and Jeffrey UllmanPrinciples of Compiler Design Book – the Dragon Book.
  5. Larry Wall – for the Perl Programming Language.
  6. Linus Torvalds – for Linux.
  7. Dries Buytaert – for Drupal.
  8. Guido van Rossum – for Python.
  9. Richard Stallman – for Emacs, GNU, and Free Software Foundation.
  10. John Backus, Niklaus Wirth and Edsger Dijkstra – for the development of modern programming languages that make it all possible.

I know there are others (Alan Turing and John Von Neumann are obvious), but these guys spring to the top of my mind. If you are a fan of Outliers you’ll notice how many of these guys were born in the early 50’s – that seems to be the time when many of the great programmers were born.

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

I recently read the thought provoking book: Outliers by Malcom Gladwell. I was particularly pleased to see Bill Joy and The Beatles featured, amongst many others. The book attempts to explain why some people succeed far more than others. It was fascinating to read about the early lives of Bill, John, Paul, George, and Ringo and how they grew into such huge successes.

The basic premise of the book is that when and where we grow-up, and how many hours you work, has a much bigger impact on our chance of success than genetics and intellect. It traces the lives of highly successful people applying this premise. He is so convincing that I definitely changed my view of how I achieved my own success.

I used to believe I was just born brilliant, but thanks to Mr. Gladwell’s book now I’m not so sure …


Bill Joy - A Truly Exceptional Programmer

Bill Joy – A Truly Exceptional Programmer

Bill Joy is still far and away the guy I most look up to in the world of software. Thirty years on and I’m still using Vi and Csh. Yeah, they might be newer versions and not his actual code anymore but to me they are still his. Without Bill Joy we’d never have Berkeley Unix which was the catalyst for the Unix phenomena. Back in the late 70’s/early 80’s when the Clash were still the best band in the world, the Bell Labs strain of Unix was struggling, System V was a disaster and although we’ll always be thankful to Ritchie and Thompson for starting it all some new blood was needed. Bill Joy fitted the role with room to spare.

Networking, the internet, software tools, editors, open software, and programming languages would never have had the impact and growth they experienced without him and this was all before he co-founded Sun Microsystems.

My passion for software all began as I studied the amazing poetry written by this true Software Genius.

Thanks Bill!