The Observation Deck

Month: May 2009

As I have mentioned before (if in passing), I sit on the Editorial Advisory Board of ACM Queue, ACM‘s flagship publication for practitioners. In the past year, Queue has undergone a significant transformation, and now finds itself at the vanguard of a much broader shift within the ACM — one that I confess to once thinking impossible.

My story with respect to the ACM is like that of many practitioners, I suspect: I first became aware of the organization as an undergraduate computer science student, when it appeared to me as the embodiment of academic computer science. This perception was cemented by its flagship publication, Communications of the ACM, a magazine which, to a budding software engineer longing for the world beyond academia, seemed to be adrift in dreamy abstraction. So when I decided at the end of my undergraduate career to practice my craft professionally, I didn’t for a moment consider joining the ACM: it clearly had no interest in the practitioner, and I had no interest in it.

Several years into my career, my colleague David Brown mentioned that he was serving on the Editorial Board of a new ACM publication aimed at the practitioner, dubbed ACM Queue. The idea of the ACM focussing on the practitioner brought to mind a piece of Sun engineering lore from the old Mountain View days. Sometime in the early 1990s, the campus engaged itself in a water fight that pitted one building against the next. The researchers from the Sun Labs building built an elaborate catapult to launch water-filled missiles at their adversaries, while the gritty kernel engineers in legendary MTV05 assembled surgical tubing into simple but devastatingly effective three-person water balloon slingshots. As one might guess, the Labs folks never got their catapult to work — and the engineers doused them with volley after volley of water balloons. So when David first mentioned that the ACM was aiming a publication at the practitioner, my mental image was of lab-coated ACM theoreticians, soddenly tinkering with an overcomplicated contraption. I chuckled to myself at this picture, wished David good luck on what I was sure was going to be a fruitless endeavor, and didn’t think any more of it.

Several months after it launched, I happened to come across an issue of the new ACM Queue. With skepticism, I read a few of the articles. I found them to be surprisingly useful — almost embarrassingly so. I sheepishly subscribed, and I found that even the articles that I disagreed with — like this interview with an apparently insane Alan Kay — were more thought-provoking than enraging. And in soliciting articles on sordid topics like fault management from engineers like my long-time co-conspirator Mike Shapiro, the publication proved itself to be interested in both abstract principles and their practical application. So when David asked me to be a guest expert for their issue on system performance, I readily accepted. I put together an issue that I remain proud of today, with articles from Bart Smaalders on performance anti-patterns, Phil Beevers on development methodologies for high-performance software, me on DTrace — and topped off with an interview between Kirk McKusick and Jarod Jenson that, among its many lessons, warns us of the subtle perils of Java’s notifyAll.

Two years later, I was honored to be asked to join Queue’s Editorial Advisory Board, where my eyes were opened to a larger shift within the ACM: the organization — led by both its executive leadership in CEO John White and COO Pat Ryan and its past and present elected ACM leadership like Steve Bourne, Dave Patterson, Stu Feldman and Wendy Hall — were earnestly and deliberately seeking to bring the practitioner into the ACM fold. And I quickly learned that I was not alone in my undergraduate dismissal of Communications of the ACM: CACM was broadly viewed within the ACM as being woefully out of touch with both academic and practitioner alike, with one past president confessing that he himself couldn’t stomach reading it — even when his name was on the masthead. There was an active reform movement within the ACM to return the publication to its storied past, and this trajectory intersected with the now-proven success of Queue: it was decided that the in-print vehicle for Queue would shift to become the Practice section of a new, revitalized CACM. I was elated by this change, for it meant that our superlative practitioner-authored content would at last enter the walled garden of the larger academic community. And for practitioners, a newly relevant CACM would also serve to expose us to a much broader swathe of computer science.

After much preparation, the new CACM launched in July 2008. Nearly a year later, I think it can safely be called a success. To wit, I point to two specific (if personal) examples from that first issue alone: thanks to the new CACM, my colleague Adam Leventhal’s work on flash memory and our integration of it in ZFS found a much broader readership than it would have otherwise — and Adam was recently invited to join an otherwise academic symposium on flash. And thanks to the new CACM, I — and thousands of other practitioners — were treated to David Shaw’s incredible Anton, the kind of work that gives engineers an optimistic excitement uniquely induced by such moon shots. By bringing together the academic and the practitioner, the new CACM is effecting a new ACM.

So, to my fellow practitioners: I strongly encourage you to join me as a member of the ACM. While CACM is clearly a compelling and tangible benefit, it is not the only reason to join the ACM. As professionals, I believe that we have a responsibility to our craft: to learn from our peers, to offer whatever we might have to teach, and to generally leave the profession better than we found it. In other professions — in law, in medicine, and in more traditional engineering domains — this professional responsibility is indoctrinated to the point of expectation. But our discipline perhaps shows its youth in our ignorance of this kind of professional service. To be fair, this cannot be laid entirely at the practitioner’s feet: the organizations that have existed for computer scientists have simply not been interested in attracting, cultivating, or retaining the practitioner. But with the shift within the ACM embodied by the new CACM, this is changing. The ACM now aspires to be the organization that represents all computer scientists — not just those who teach students, perform research and write papers, but also those of us who cut code, deliver product and deploy systems for a living. Joining the ACM helps it make good on this aspiration; we practitioners cannot effect this essential change from outside its membership. And we must not stop at membership: if there is an article that you might like to write for the broader ACM audience, or an article that you’d like to see written, or a suggestion you might have for a CTO roundtable or a practitioner you think should be interviewed, or, for that matter, any other change that you might like to see in the ACM to further appeal to the practitioner, do not stay silent; the ACM has given us practitioners a new voice — but it is only good if we use it!

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