Saturday, January 5, 2013

My 700th Blog Post - Thanks npg aka Neil P. Groundwater!

This is my 700th blog post and I thought it was a good time to reflect not only on my blog, but on my technical mentor -- Neil P. Groundwater aka npg - and to say thanks to Neil for all of his help and guidance over the past 26 years!

Turning on the WayBack machine -- I got very, very lucky when I started working for Sun Microsystems on May 4th, 1987 when I met Neil.

I was hired as a Systems Engineer (SE) and Neil was the consultant in the office.  Neil was the Jesus/Allah/Buddah of the Sun DC office.  As a consultant, the technical buck stopped with Neil.  When the SEs had a very difficult question, we would walk over to Neil's office.  Neil had an office - we had cubes.  We all knew our places in the IQ food chain :-)  Neil chose his parents well.  Unlike some very technical individuals, Neil also has a great personality and someone you can talk to.  That is not always the case and there are many extremely technical and gifted individuals who are devoid of any social skills whatsoever.

There are many stories I could tell, but I will limit it to just a few.  I am sure Neil will remind me of many more :-)

Neil as the definition of a true Unix Wizard.  Below is the button that Neil created that Steve Jobs saw and wanted to know the whole story about the button and who created it as well.  I will let Neil tell the story via a comment on this blog post.  Update:  Here is Neil's comment on the button below:
"To illuminate the Unix source code reference that Dave leaves as an exercise to this reader, dmr explains the context of the famous Unix comment on a Bell Labs website:

The gist is that is glosses over some too-clever code that diddles with Unix context-switching. Later, when Unix was moved to another computer architecture it didn't behave as expected -- the authors didn't fully understand it either! Of course I still have a sweatshirt with the quote on it but I have never claimed "to understand this".

Early on in my career at Sun I was given the opportunity to lead an extremely large benchmark.  It was the largest and most complicated that Sun Microsystems had ever done.  When I asked a question of Neil, he volunteered to help me out on this benchmark.  We had an entire team of Sun engineers and having Neil was a huge win for us.  It was at this time that the company that was the prime (Sun was the sub) their technical team had some very low level questions that only Neil could answer.  They asked if I could get Neil to come out to their office.   I explained to them, "think of Neil Groundwater as a mountain.  The mountain does not come to you, you come to the mountain."  They then said, "We understand Dave, but there are 14 of us and just one of him, right?"   I said, "Yes, you are correct, but the 14 of you do NOT have the answers and Neil does have the answers, so it benefits you to go to him."   I then went on to say, "if Neil comes here, we will bill you his hourly rate."   They then aske, "what his is hourly rate?"   I tell them Neil's hourly rate and then they ask, "Does Neil charge us when we are asking the questions or only when he is talking?"   I then replied with, "What!?!?!?!, listen, when Neil walks in the room - he is billing, so I suggest that you have your questions all lined up and I would make sure whoever is asking the questions does not have a stuttering problem either, because that will eat into your clock!"  Neil came out and answered all of their questions.

Neil was/is into the history of computing and gave me a number of famous buttons.

Neil also created the triple garlic pizza lunch that all of the SEs had to participate in or they were shunned technically.  It was not an option and it was an IQ test for the new SEs when they were asked if they wanted to go out with Neil for garlic pizza :-)  I remember one time when I had triple garlic pizza with Neil then had Hard Times Chili that night with good friend Mike Groene.  When I got home my wife said I was sleeping downstairs as she so nicely stated, "I don't know what crawled up inside you and DIED, but you are NOT sleeping with me tonight!"  Awwww, true love :-)

Update:  In Neil's comment, he brought up John Gage, Bill Joy, Neil and me at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.  This is a must tell story :-)    Here's the story...  The local Sun Microsystems Washington DC office gave $330,000 of Sun servers to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.  In exchange for the $330,000, the Smithsonian gave Sun the use of the entire National Air and Space Museum for two evenings.  I remember that John Bittenbring was the SR and I was the SE for the Smithsonian (just one of my accounts).  We decided to take the National Air and Space Museum up on their offer in April 1991.   I was tasked with making this happen and luckily for me, Neil said he would help out.  Bill Joy was giving two talks and he wanted a Sun workstation setup for him to present from live.  I suggested that we have two there as a backup.   Neil and I got there in the early afternoon to setup for the first night.  The first night was just for Sun's employees and the second night was for Sun's local customers.  We had it in National Air and Space Museum IMAX theater.  We had it all set up when this small contingent of VIPs from the National Air and Space Museum come into the theater.  The person leading the group asks me, "are you the one responsible for this?"  I replied, "yes I am".  He introduces himself and then says, "great!, I would like to give you a back room tour of Air and Space Museum."   The group then takes Neil and I on this incredible tour of National Air and Space Museum showing us how it works from behind the scenes.  As we are going through the tour, it hits me like a ton of bricks that when he asked the question, "are you the one responsible for this?", what he REALLY meant was, "are you the DUDE who was responsible for the $330,000 gift of Sun servers?"   Well, no I wasn't.  This came from Dick Bowman, the VP for the local Sun DC office.  At that point, it was too late to stop the tour.  We get back on the tour and John Gage shows up.  The National Air and Space Museum VIP looks at me like, "so, who the HELL are you two then?"  We got a great tour!

I remember when Bill Joy showed up and it was time to go through the dry run.  Bill and John were getting a tour and they needed someone to stand in for him in the front to get an idea on how it would look.  Bill looked at me and said, "how tall are you Dave?"  I said I was 6'1"   Bill said, "I am 6'2", you can stand in there for me."   One of the highlights of my life.  Now, I just had to stand there as folks from the Air and Space Museum were checking out how it looked with the two Sun workstations in the front row of the IMAX and a person standing there.  They were concerned about views.  The night was a HUGE success.

I remember another time that Neil and I were with John Gage and Bill Joy at the CIA.  We had a series of meetings and then decided to go out that night in Georgetown for dinner.  This was in the early 90s as well.   They give me the wine list.  This was like giving a pig a Rolex watch and asking the pig to tell you what time it is.  I look at the wine menu and say, "I could go for a pitcher of Busch beer."  Neil looks at me like, "you FREAKING HILLBILLY!"  John looks at me a little suspect as well.  It was at that point Bill says, "you know, I could go for some beer first as well."  I am not sure I have had a bigger smile on my face.

Neil also drove home the point to new SEs - RTFM :-)

I remember at the introduction of the Sun SPARCstation 1 when we were room mates in Atlanta.  One night Neil asks me, "what are you doing tonight?"  My reply was, "I don't know, go out with the SEs I guess, how about you?"   Neil replied, "not sure, but I will figure something out."    Well, story of my life, the next morning Neil tells me, "you screwed up dude"   Neil then goes on to tell me that he got hooked up with Scott McNealy in his limo and they cruised bars and hung out all night.  I could have been there!  Crap!  Again, story of my life :-)

Neil is GREAT at computer history because he was there.  When I asked about where the ping command came from, he sends me his "Ping" book and tells me the whole story.

Neil gave me a list of countless books to read to get smart not only on Unix and Unix history, but on computer history in general.  Here is a great one that Neil is in as well:

Neil was the first user of Unix outside the state of New Jersey which is very, very impressive.

We both shared a love of the all time classic, Spinal Tap and specifically, "the numbers all go to 11"  "it's one louder isn't it?" - "This one goes to 11".

When Scott McNealy came to the Washington, DC office, I had the nerve to have Scott sign my Sun Ten Year Anniversary Yearbook with the text below that Neil thought took a lot of balls to have Scott sign it this way :-)

I remember being with Neil at a Usenix when Neil is talking to me and then says, "hold on one second Dave".  Looking over my shoulder, Neil says, "Hey Dennis, come here, there is someone I would like you to meet."   I turn around and it is Dennis Ritchie.  Neil introduces us and I am in complete awe and just say, "Nice to meet you Dennis".

That is the crowd that Neil knew and would work with --  Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thompson, Bill Joy, Rob Pike, Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, Seymour Cray, Whit Diffie, Mike O'Dell, Dick Gabriel, James Gosling, Ivan Sutherland, Steve Jobs, Grace Hopper, Dan Ingalls, Alan Kay, David Korn, Steve Bourne, John Mashey, Dave Patterson, Jon Postel, Radia Perlman, Jeff Rulifson, Bob Sproull, Scott McNealy, Guy Steele, Linus Torvalds, Alfred Aho, Brian Kernighan, Steve Fritzinger, Brian Wong, John Meyer, Tim Wallace, Dennis Govoni, John DiCarlo, Mike Geldner, Brian Raymor, Joel McClung to name just a few.

One of the phrases that Neil told me about, which is one of my favorite phrases of all time is "Everything You Know Is Wrong".  As Wikipedia points out,  Everything You Know Is Wrong is the eighth comedy album by the Firesign Theatre released in October 1974 on Columbia Records.  I have used the phrase for a number of talks, videos, webinars and presentations. 

Below is Neil on the left, me, Mike O'Dell and Captain Fred Denniston on the GREAT intracoastal waterway trip we took in December of 2009. 


Neil told me about Mike O'Dells Laws:

  1. Scaling is ALWAYS the problem.
  2. If you are not afraid, you simply do not understand.

Here's to you npg - thanks for everything and this 700th blog post is dedicated to you!


  1. Yeesh! Maybe Dave's been sampling some of Colorado's Prop. 64 herbal essence. :-)

    Yes, I suppose I did the majority of things he says I did. And I remember when John Gage left us at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum one afternoon while he went off to help Al Gore build the Internet, too.

    To illuminate the Unix source code reference that Dave leaves as an exercise to this reader, dmr explains the context of the famous Unix comment on a Bell Labs website:
    The gist is that is glosses over some too-clever code that diddles with Unix context-switching. Later, when Unix was moved to another computer architecture it didn't behave as expected -- the authors didn't fully understand it either! Of course I still have a sweatshirt with the quote on it but I have never claimed "to understand this".

    Thanks, Dave. Congratulations on #700!

    1. Thanks Neil! I updated the blog with both the National Air and Space Museum story as well as the CIA story. You should check it out to make sure I have not dropped any bits.

  2. Great post, Dave, and a wonderful tribute to a wonderful man. I married well, didn't I? ;-)