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Tech luminaries honor database god Jim Gray

A tribute, not a memorial

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In the early nineties, when David Vaskevitch decided that Microsoft should tackle the enterprise database business, the first thing he did was pick up the phone. He dialed the sharpest software minds he knew, and he asked each one who he should talk to about all things DB. They all gave the same answer: Jim Gray. And each described him in exactly the same way: Jim Gray, they said, is smarter than I am.

"I kept going back to the idea that the smartest person in the world must be Jim Gray," says Vaskevitch, now CTO of Microsoft's business platforms division, "because there was no one who would say they were smarter."

Then he met the man. And he realized that if you called him the smartest person in the world, you sold him short. "At least at Microsoft, the smarter you are, the less human you are. But Jim was exactly the opposite."

In 1998, Jim Gray won the Turing Award for his seminal work on database transaction processing. While at IBM's San Jose research center in the mid-70s, he helped define the fundamental ways that information moves to and from the world's online record stores. But for Vaskevitch - and for so many others - his influence was much greater than that.

Photo of Jim Gray. of Microsoft

Jim Gray

"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," Vaskevitch says, "But I really don't think that's his main contribution."

Jim Gray didn't just nurture the database. He nurtured the database industry - and industries beyond - serving as friend and mentor to an army of pioneering computer scientists. "I would call someone up and try to convince them to come to Microsoft," Vaskevitch remembers, "and sometimes, they would say they wanted to talk to Jim Gray first. But usually, they had already talked to Jim about the phone call I was going to make before I even knew I was going to make it.

"Jim had this web of connections. You can think of him as the transaction coordinator, where the transactions were people moving around the industry. He made it all work."

And making it all work wasn't his motivation. "Jim had an ability to make you feel that he really cared about your life - because he did - an ability to have that kind of personal relationship with so many of us. That's what most defined him."

On Saturday, at University of California Berkeley, David Vaskevitch was among the dozens who gathered for a day-long tribute to the life and work of Gray. Eighteen months ago, Gray was lost at sea after sailing his yacht, Tenacious, from San Francisco Bay.

Despite a five-day hunt by the US Coast Guard - and another three weeks of searching by some of the tech industry's cleverest minds - he wasn't found. But in the words of Pauline Boss, Saturday's gathering was not a memorial.

"It is because of the mystery that we honor rather than memorialize Jim Gray today," said Boss, professor emeritus of psychotherapy at the University of Minnesota. "Paradoxically, acknowledging what we don't know helps focus on what we do know: that Jim Gray's contributions to the world, to science, to friends, and to his family are immense, and continue to influence us all every day."

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