Jerry Estrin: Recollections and Appreciation
Written: June 25, 2012
On March 30, 2012 I saw a note on the Internet History email list saying that Jerry Estrin had passed away the previous day. The UCLA obituary is here. Jerry was an important part of my life, and it has taken me several months to reach a point where I could write down some of my thoughts. There is so much worth saying in tribute to him; here is just one small attempt (among probably hundreds from around the world) to let others know what a great person he was, and, in some way, to say thanks.
I first heard the name "Jerry Estrin" in early 1973. I was working for Bell Labs and had decided to pursue a PhD in Computer Science at UCLA. A friend of mine, Leanna Leonard, had arranged a lunch in Santa Monica to introduce me to another friend of hers who had gotten his PhD in CS from UCLA in 1969. That friend was Ed Russell, who had been an Estrin student, and he strongly encouraged me to follow the same path. I gathered that Jerry's primary research area was computer architecture, and I was more interested in software systems, but Ed said "Don't worry about that; Jerry's interests are very broad." And so they proved to be.
Soon after, I called Jerry and found him to be both gracious and encouraging, in spite of the fact that my undergraduate degree was from a small, and little known, engineering college in LA (the now-defunct Northrop Institute of Technology). I was accepted by both UCLA and Jerry, and started classes in September, 1973. Jerry was very patient with my not having any idea what I wanted to focus on. I recall discussing a long list of possibilities, since my interests were also diverse. They ranged from computational support for nuclear fusion to computer art. Finally, a class with another key influence at UCLA, Bob (Buz) Uzgalis, led me down a path that brought together language design, networking, and operating systems. Buz (who I learned, shortly after the news of Jerry's death, had passed on just ten days before Jerry) was the primary influence on me regarding language design, and also fed my interest in music and computer art, but Jerry became my primary mentor in so many other aspects of my education, life and leadership.
In 1974 there were several meetings with Jerry, Buz, John Neuhart (a friend in the UCLA art department), and John Whitney (pioneering computer artist) about the possibility of a computer art program at UCLA. That program didn't come to fruition back then, but during those years it was incredibly exciting to be around the creative energy of LA in general, and UCLA in particular.
Jerry fully supported my curiosity and continual quest for the intersections between technology and other disciplines. One of many examples was encouraging me to sit-in on classes outside of CS, such as those of Prof. Bill Mitchell -- then head of UCLA's School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and a pioneer in applying Computer Aided Design to building architecture. Bill became one of the outside members of my dissertation committee (which Jerry chaired) and another exemplar of creative energy that has inspired me ever since.
It has taken me decades to realize that knowledge transfer is not the essence of higher education. Rather, it is critical thinking, mentoring, and the magic that happens when you put smart, curious, and creative people together that is the essence of higher education. UCLA was a center of intellectual activity, especially in computer science and networking (UCLA was the first node of the ARPANET in 1969), and Los Angeles was a center of culture and creativity, especially in music, art, and architecture. These were some of the happiest years of my life, full of discovery, full of intellectual and cultural adventure. Jerry was an integral part of that adventure for me, and he continued to be a friend ever after. Indeed, Jerry (and Thelma) treated me and his other students as family.
I was not conscious of it at the time, but since my own dad had passed away just a few months before I started grad school at UCLA, it's fair to say Jerry's influence and role went beyond that of typical grad student adviser. This bond was strengthened by some projects we worked on together, most notably an ERDA (precursor to the US Department of Energy) contract to investigate the value of this new ARPANET thing for energy research. It was a collaborative effort involving about 18 national energy laboratories, with Jerry being the Principal Investigator. A computer system called MIT-Multics was used as the document repository for the project.
One unforgettable event occurred in mid 1976, I think. We (Jerry, our project secretary, and myself) had been working well past midnight on the ERDA report when we decided to take a belated dinner break. We walked down to a Westwood Village all-night restaurant (Ships, as I recall) and had a bite to eat. Soon after returning to the office around 2am, Jerry and I heard a yell from our secretary's office. She had logged into MIT-Multics and discovered that all the changes she'd been incorporating into the report for the past several days were gone! Multics is pretty good about recording the identity of whoever accesses or modifies files, so it did not take me long to "ID" the likely suspect.
It turned out to be a colleague at another lab who had, with the best intentions, copied the document files from MIT-Multics over to another computer, BBN-TENEX, which had a better spell-check program than Multics. So far so good, but this process ended up taking a couple of days -- and was flawed by the incorrect assumption that the files on MIT-Multics were not being actively updated even after they were copied to BBN-TENEX. Unfortunately that meant that when our colleague copied the freshly spell-checked files back to MIT-Multics, all of the changes made by our secretary over the previous days were obliterated. Never mind that it was well past 2am, Jerry placed a directed phone call to our helpful colleague right then and there. As far as I know, the phone lines involved may still be charred from that conversation.
When Jerry visited my 600-square-foot house across the street from Venice High School, he observed that the "master" bedroom was barely larger than the bed in it, with a wall of books at one end above the head of the bed. He looked at the books, looked at the pillows directly below, turned to me and said: "You don't believe in earthquakes?" Naturally, I promptly moved the pillows to the other end of the bed, so only my feet would be crushed by the books, should an earthquake entice them off the shelves! Later, when I got married, Jerry and Thelma were more generous than anyone else in contributing to our "piano fund".
In Jerry's office there was a poster on the wall: a composite image synthesizing the likenesses of Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, and Golda Meir. He would explain to visitors that the image was a reminder that analysis is much easier than synthesis -- the composite image notwithstanding. Gaining such insights was a regular occurrence when hanging around Jerry, but he was at his best when practicing Socratic questioning. He fully embraced the adage that "research begins with a question."
Back to UCLA
After completing my PhD in 1978, and then some post doc tasks, I went to work for a couple of local companies, including one with ill-fated ambitions of getting into the computer business. When that effort failed, I gravitated back to UCLA. Starting in January of 1982 I found myself with both faculty and staff roles in the CS department: teaching and running the new UCLA Center for Experimental Computer Science, under the leadership of Prof. Walter Karplus. Jerry continued to act as my guide and adviser, and as chair of the CS department at that time was also one of my bosses. To introduce me to the wonderful world of professorship, he arranged for me to teach four classes that first quarter. I had no idea what I was in for! However, one of the classes gave me the opportunity to co-teach software engineering with the guy who invented the discipline of software engineering, Barry Boehm -- which was a great experience. Yes, Jerry believed in "learning by doing" (if not "trial by fire") and it's fair to say that the notion of "people-sized jobs" was foreign to him -- or at least, his notion differed from that of most others! Hard work was a hallmark, but never for its own sake, always in service to discovery and progress.
I recall one friendly disagreement with Jerry over the years. We had a running debate about whether I was a top-down or a bottom-up kind of guy. From his own observations, Jerry was convinced that I didn't have a bottom-up bone in my body. I disagreed, claiming to be bipartisan in this regard -- as happy to synthesize abstract models from specific data points as to predict specific behaviors from general concepts. Today I often extrapolate from a sample of one or two into some grand theory, but concede that -- at least in 1975 -- the predominance of evidence was on Jerry's side of the argument.
He once asked me what I thought of a documentary on John Von Neumann that had recently aired on TV. I could tell that he didn't think I had come away with the appropriate level of appreciation for the man he'd worked with at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies. But even when Jerry disagreed with you, he was never judgmental, rather, he was always curious about what lay behind your views.
Five years passed, research funding was getting tight, and I decided it was time for me to move on. I landed at Bridge Communications, a computer networking start-up in Silicon Valley co-founded by Judy Estrin, one of Jerry's three terrific daughters. As it turned out, I joined Bridge only a few months before their "merger made in heaven" with 3Com, which soon proved to have had its origins a little lower. Within six months of the merger, three of the four Bridge founders had left, and I didn't stay much longer. It became clear that a happy future at 3Com was unlikely, so what did I do? I called Jerry, of course, and let him know I was "available." Within minutes of that call, Jerry walked over to Walter Karplus' office to spread the word. In Walter's office at that moment was Mike Stenstrom, who was a Civil Engineering Prof I'd worked with closely on the UCLA School of Engineering network project. Shortly thereafter, I heard from Mike who told me that Ron Johnson had been asking after me. I had known Ron slightly when we both worked at UCLA; he had been in charge of administrative computing and left about the same time I did to become CIO at the University of Washington. I got in touch and flew to Seattle a week later for an interview.
Through UCLA connections I also spoke with people at HP (Joel Birnbaum) and Apple (Jean Louis Gassee) about job possibilities, but the gravitational pull of academia was strong, in no small part because of Jerry's example. Things clicked with Ron, and just over a month later I started at UW as Director of Networks & Distributed Computing, with an Affiliate Professorship in Computer Science. Although I've done precious little teaching at UW, my background at UCLA undoubtedly helped maintain good relationships between UW's CS department and the central IT organization -- something of a rarity in higher education. It also didn't hurt to discover when I arrived at UW that the chair of the CS Department was Jean-Loup Baer, a fellow Estrin student. Small world. I've been at UW ever since, now approaching 24 years, and not a month goes by that I don't think about my UCLA days in general, and Jerry in particular.
After leaving LA, my interactions with Jerry were mainly via email and holiday cards, but there were a few exceptions. In 2002, several of Jerry's former students (notably Lolo Penedo, Mary Vernon, and Bob Fenchel) organized a reunion, in part to celebrate Jerry's 80th birthday. What a treat to both re-connect with great people I hadn't seen in years, but also to see and hear the love expressed for Jerry. There were many heart-warming testimonials of how Jerry made a difference in our lives. I noted that since I'd landed on the practitioner, rather than professorial, side of computer science, I had not carried on his academic family tree (passing on Jerry's intellectual DNA to my own students); however, in my role as an IT manager and leader I had been able to convey to my staff many of the same approaches and insights I'd learned from Jerry -- as well as (I hoped) embracing and conveying his spirit and humanity. It was also fun to see old photos, including Jerry with Von Neumann at Princeton, and Vint Cerf (another fellow Estrin student) with long hair and a full black beard. As part of this celebration, Fenchel assembled a wonderful collection of remembrances entitled: Gerald Estrin's Extended Family: A Tribute, which is available here.
In 2004, Jerry and Thelma visited Seattle for a AAAS meeting and we had a very enjoyable dinner together. I think that was the last time I saw them. I did attend a meeting at UCLA in 2008 and hoped we could get together, but it didn't work out. Jerry had suggested dinner at the faculty club, but I had to attend an event related to my meeting instead. We did, however, catch up by phone shortly thereafter, and I think that is when I learned Judy had just finished writing a book (Closing the Innovation Gap). Jerry could not have been more proud. Without question, Deborah's great success in the UCLA CS department, including her Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, also brought him enormous joy.
We continued to exchange occasional email when either of us came across items that might interest the other. When George Dyson spoke at UW in 2011 about the early days of computing, he mentioned Jerry and showed a picture of him with the Princeton IAS gang. In the audience, both Jean-Loup Baer and I felt a little burst of reflected pride. I sent Jerry a note with a link to George's talk, and he quickly responded with a description of his last meeting with Dyson, as well as preparations for his upcoming 90th birthday.
One thing is for sure: Jerry didn't just leave behind some transient "tracks in the sand"... he lives on through Margo, Judy and Deborah, through his students, and through his considerable direct contributions to the community. Many people owe Jerry a lot. I'm one of them. Perhaps more than anything, I learned by his example the meaning of Mensch. I can't think of anyone who fits the definition better.