A tribute to Jim Gray
Lost, but not forgotten
As we post this, Jim Gray has been missing for three months. It now seems very unlikely that he is still alive, although his family has not given up hope.
We decided to publish the following tribute to him, because his life deserves to be celebrated.
James 'Jim' Nicholas Gray (born 1944)
History excels at recording technical achievements, so there is no doubt that in 100 years Jim Gray's name will still be there in the history books. After all, he won a Turing Award, the computing equivalent of a Nobel Prize. That alone assures him a place. In the database world he will be remembered as the man who worked out how transactions can be performed effectively.
No doubt history will also record the facts of his untimely disappearance - he disappeared on Sunday January 28, 2007 on a short sailing trip in good weather, and no trace of man or vessel has yet been found.
It is also likely to record the extraordinary fact that, after five days, when the Coast Guard finally gave up searching, the technical world didn't. Instead, people from many companies including bitter rivals like Oracle, Microsoft, and Google, worked side by side, day and night to continue the search in any possible way they could dream up.
They hired planes and boats and sent them out. DigitalGlobe volunteered one of its satellites to capture images of the search area. NASA diverted an ER-2 (the civilian version of the U2 spy plane) to photograph the area. When the physical images needed rapid transport, an F-18 magically appeared. People wrote custom software which chopped up the images and applied image processing. Amazon hosted the images on the Mechanical Turk website so other volunteers could spend hours poring over them, applying the non-artificial intelligence that might just spot something the algorithms had missed.
The Coast Guard had never seen such a concerted and technically competent response from civilians. Captain David Swatland, deputy commander of Coast Guard sector San Francisco, said: "This is the largest strictly civilian privately sponsored search effort I have ever seen."
Given that the search was so unusual, history will probably record it, but I guarantee it will completely fail to record why we all did this. How come so many people in so many organisations came together to try to find Gray? Why did companies fall over themselves to divert resources from top priority projects? Why were people from such diverse companies allowed to collaborate so freely?
The reason is simple: Jim knew a very large number of people and those of us who knew him also loved him. When it came down to it, we didn't care that he was very bright. We didn't care that he had a Turing award. We didn't care who he worked for. It just so happened that in our many and varied interactions with Jim, the one common factor was that he always gave far, far, more than he took. We were all enriched by the fact that he was here on the planet and none of us was prepared to accept that he might be gone.
So the co-operation wasn't about companies signing declarations of an intention to form an alliance that might, at some point in the future, form the basis of an agreement to work toward a common understanding. This was about individuals emailing each other and saying: "This is terrible. What can we do? I have this resource, what have you got?" This was about people like Joseph M Hellerstein emailing out and Sergey Brin emailing back within the hour offering Google Earth's satellite imaging expertise. This was about over 12,000 people who don't have those kinds of resources, giving of their time to scan endless images of the sea looking for anything that resembled a boat.
So why did we all care so much about him?
Jim was very, very bright. He excelled in database technology (obviously) but he was also a polymath – he actively worked in areas as diverse as astronomy, medicine, oceanography, and environmental science.
In one sense this doesn't make Jim unique – there are a great many human beings around, some of them are bound to be highly intelligent. Sadly for most, a brain the size of a planet comes with an ego to match. Not Jim. He must have been aware that his intellect was unusual, but he was great at ignoring the fact.
He also seemed completely unmoved by the trappings that fame could have bought. For example, I was once queuing for lunch at a conference when I realised that the guy in front of me was Jim. He had on one of those badges of unusual colour that enable you to pass the big, polite, but very firm security guards into the luxurious room with the food that doesn't taste like cardboard. But Jim preferred to lunch with the delegates, finding out what they were working on, proffering help and advice. Whenever he gave a talk he was mobbed afterwards by people wanting to speak to him. He didn't run away after five minutes, but stayed and talked to everyone.
He also managed to combine a wonderfully gentle sense of humour with a complete and uncompromising honesty. This showed up from very early on in his career - in fact, on page one of his PhD thesis.
Thesis acknowledgments usually try to express in veiled terms the answer to the following question: Pick one:
- The advisor wrote this thesis.
- The advisor helped write this thesis*.
- The advisor helped*.
- The advisor let me go my own way*.
- I never saw my advisor.
- The advisor gave me lots of trouble.
- I wish I had never seen my advisor.
Mike has fallen pleasantly into three of these categories [starred]. He has also provided the moral and financial support which has made the unpleasant process of passing exams and writing a thesis almost bearable.
Most postgraduates fantasise about being humorous in their PhD thesis, few are actually brave enough: offend the external examiner and you can spend the rest of your career flipping burgers. And yet, for all the humour, this highlights a real problem about some research supervisors.
Rick Rashid, head of Microsoft's research group, said: "Jim Gray is not only one of the most influential scientists in the world, he is also the kind of person you would want your children to grow up to be. His willingness to give of himself, educate, mentor, support others, solve the hard problems people bring to him, and reach out to make the world better make him one of the field's most loved individuals."
And it is true, mentoring and helping others was what Jim did best. I was privileged to work with him in several different guises. He heard about a group in which I work at Cambridge University – we are using multi-dimensional databases to understand how Darwin developed the Theory of Evolution. He offered to come and see us and, over the course of a couple of hours, listened to what we were doing and then quietly suggested a novel solution to a sticky problem.
It was the obvious answer as soon as he described it, yet I had missed it in the two years we had been working around the problem. And Jim left me almost convinced that I had thought of it myself. He was kind enough to offer to continue to help and we were delighted. The loss of Jim will be felt in our research group for years to come and we are just one of a huge number of groups and individuals that Jim, completely unselfishly, helped over the years.
Oddly, as well as working as an academic, I am also a computer journalist, one of perhaps the most cynical group in the computing world today - the UK press corp. Yet even this battle-hardened group treated Jim with a deference that bordered on reverence. Part of this was down to that complete honesty. In theory he was a PR nightmare because he simply wouldn't lie. I remember at the Yukon Technical briefing in 2003 in Seattle. Jim said of the security in SQL Server 2000 (with reference to the slammer incident): "We screwed up big time, it's as simple as that."
Imagine, just for a moment, that you are a journalist. Imagine the headline you can now write: "Microsoft finally admits it screwed up big time." It is a total gift, but it was never written because it was Jim who said it. Total honesty works both ways and when he then proceeded to explain in detail how Microsoft had addressed the overall screw up (not just slammer), and told us it was fixed, we believed that as well. So we wrote about the fix rather than the attention-grabbing headline.
Jim's reputation also allowed him to transcend the commercial barriers that normally exist between companies. I remember him telling me that certain obscure areas of the SQL language are open to interpretation and that Oracle, DB2 and SQL Server all used different interpretations. The result was that some complex queries returned a different answer, depending on the engine used.
Jim was aware that, at the corporate level, this would take years to settle as none of the companies concerned could be seen to be backing down. So he just quietly arranged a meeting with technical people from all three companies and they came to an agreement. After that, SQL was consistent between the engines. No corporate egos were harmed in the making of those decisions, but the life of the average database developer was made just that little bit easier.
Ultimately, I could list here for you all of Jim's academic and commercial achievements. They were indeed legion, but history will record those. I think it is more important to put on record why so many people cared so much when he disappeared.
It wasn't because of his achievements; it was because of the man. I've met many successful people, I know many kind people; but I have known very few like Jim, whose compassion exceeded his remarkable achievements. ®