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A Tribute to Jim Gray

May 31, 2008

Like several hundred others, I spent today at Berkeley at a tribute to honor Jim Gray. While many there today had collaborated with Jim in some capacity, my own connection to him is tertiary at best: I currently serve on the Editorial Advisory Board of ACM Queue, a capacity in which Jim also served up until his disappearance. And while I never met Jim, his presence is still very much felt on the Queue Board — and I went today as much to learn about as to honor the man and computer scientist who still looms so large.

I came away inspired not only by what Jim had done and how he had done it, but also by the many in whom Jim had seen and developed a kind of greatness. It’s rare for a gifted mind to be emotionally engaged with others (they are often “anti-human” in the words of one presenter), but practically unique for an intellect of Jim’s caliber to have his ability for intense, collaborative engagement with so many others. Indeed, I found myself wondering if Jim didn’t belong in the pantheon of Erdos and Feynman — two other larger-than-life figures that shared Jim’s zeal for problems and affection for those solving them.

On a slightly more concrete level, I was impressed that not only was Jim a big, adventurous thinker, but that he was one who remained moored to reality. This delicate balance pervades his life’s work: The System R folks talked about how in a year he not only wrote 9 papers, but cut 10,000 lines of code. The Wisconsin database folks talked about how he who had pioneered so much in transaction processing also pioneered the database benchmarks, developing the precursor for what would become the Transaction Processing Council in a classic Datamation paper. The Tandem folks talked about how he reached beyond research and development to engage with the field and with customers to figure out (and publish!) why systems actually failed — which was quite a reach for a company that famously dubbed every product “NonStop”. And the Microsoft folks talked about his driving vision to put a large database on the web that people would actually use, leading him to develop TerraServer, and to inspire and assist subsequent systems like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope (which gave an incredible demo, by the way) — systems that solved hard, abstract problems but that also delivered appreciable concrete results.

All along, Jim remained committed to big, future-looking ideas, while still insisting on designing and implementing actual systems in the present. We in computer science do not strike that balance often enough — we are too often either detached from reality, or drowning in it — so Jim’s ability to not only strike that balance but to inspire it in others was a tremendous asset to our discipline. Jim, you are sorely missed — even (and perhaps especially) by those of us who never met you…

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