Heroes, mentors and pioneers in Computer Technology

Heroes who innovate and create. Mentors who embody and mold. They exist in every field, and wait to impact every life. Comment starts a new series today in an appropriate field: computer technology. Dr. Derek Schuurman is Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario.
March 23 rd 2007

Despite its short history, computer technology has surfaced many fascinating and eccentric personalities. While several have made significant technical contributions, there are those whose personalities and stories are a source of inspiration and encouragement to others. Let me highlight a few.

One hero of computer science is Donald Knuth. Knuth is one of the world's most respected computer scientists, and he has been awarded computer science's highest prize, the Turing Award. Donald Knuth has written many publications, including his magnum opus, The Art of Computer Programming, without which no self-respecting computer scientist's bookshelf is complete. He has also written many other books and articles, including a novel about surreal numbers. Over his career he produced a powerful typography program called TeX which is used to publish much of the world's scientific literature in mathematics and physics. Knuth is also a musician who enjoys playing his pipe organ installed in a special two-storey room in his home in Stanford. But alongside all these accomplishments, Donald Knuth openly expresses his Christian faith. On a speaking engagement at MIT he led a talk on "God and Computers," and I had the opportunity to hear him at the University of Waterloo talk about "3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated." Donald Knuth is a good example of someone whose accomplishments have opened doors for him to speak about his faith to a wider audience.

Another hero of computer science is Frederick Brooks, also a recipient of the Turing Award. In his popular book, The Mythical Man Month, Brooks shares a number of essays about some of his personal experiences and reflections on managing large and complex computer projects. In the 1960s, he led a team in the development of the IBM System/360 computer family, and then he led the development of the massive OS/360 operating system. Originally published in the 1970s, this book is still a classic and many of his conclusions have stood the test of time. Some of Brooks's insightful essays on software development included provocative and engaging titles like The Tar Pit, Hatching a Catastrophe, and No Silver Bullet which describe some of the hard lessons he learned. Among these hard-learned lessons is "Brooks's Law" which postulates the anti-intuitive idea that "adding manpower to a late software project makes it later." Brooks does a good job of highlighting the complexity of the software engineering task while combining experience in the trenches with articulate prose. Brooks also identifies himself as a Christian and eloquently expresses his faith and the joy of the creative act of programming. Despite the complexity and pitfalls inherent to software engineering, Frederick Brooks points to the simple joy in programming:

Why is programming fun? What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward? First is the sheer joy of making things. As the child delights in his mud pie, so the adult enjoys making things, especially things of his own design. I think this delight must be an image of God's delight in making things, a delight shown in the distinctiveness and newness of each leaf and each snowflake. (The Mythical Man-Month, 7).

There are also personalities in the field of computer science whom I respect for their sheer ingenuity, and who did great things with limited resources. Among these are pioneers like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard who started Hewlett Packard in their garage during the great depression. Later, in the 1970s, Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computer in his garage and helped found the Apple computer company. A more recent example is Linus Torvalds, who started programming an operating system "just for fun" while he was a graduate student at the University of Helsinki. His project grew into the powerful Linux operating system, which is now freely available and in widespread use around the world.

Sharing something of themselves

These were all clever people who, despite having very few resources, gave shape to new technologies and changed the world. The notion of shaping technology and changing the world is an appealing one for a neocalvinist, but very few of us find ourselves in that position. It's much easier to change the world one life at a time—something that mentors accomplish all the time. My most profound impressions were of less well known persons who managed to embody and personify the worldview I eventually made my own. These were people who took a personal interest in me and became mentors in my life.

As a teenager my interest in technology grew, and I studied to become a licensed amateur (ham) radio operator. Ham radio operators are quite familiar with the notion of a mentor—they call such a person an "Elmer." "Elmer" is an affectionate term used for someone who provides personal guidance and assistance to new hams. Although he wasn't into ham radio, I found a computer and electronics expert in my local church who became my "Elmer." I would approach him in the fellowship hall after church or at other events excitedly reporting some of the circuits I had fiddled with in the previous week. More often than not, I would receive a mini-lecture on the topic peppered with humour and complete with notes and schematics—usually scribbled on a scrap piece of paper or in the margin of the Sunday bulletin. What stuck with me was his willingness to take time for explanations and advice, his humour, his willingness to share in the excitement of my discoveries, and his faith. These are the excellent qualities of a good teacher or mentor.

Along the way, I have found that mentoring happens less in competitive environments. In competitive environments, the drive and ambition to succeed can eclipse concern for neighbours. Mentors are called to "look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil. 2:4). In my experience it has been teachers who exerted the greatest mentoring influence in my life. Educational relationships can form deep ties and provide ideal opportunities for mentoring. In graduate school I was to benefit from the technical knowledge and experience of my graduate school supervisors. It was my master's supervisor who recognized my gifts as a teacher and encouraged me to pursue them further, which is in part how I wound up where I am today. As I have benefited from the advice, knowledge and experience of others, I too hope to "pay it forward" to my students.

Do we ever get too old for mentors? I was assigned a mentor when I started as a new assistant professor at Redeemer University College, a practice which has become increasingly common at Christian colleges. My mentor was an older, wiser faculty member who provided sage advice on working with students, integrating faith and learning, doing research, and who also provided insights on the institutional culture and practical tips on navigating university politics. Many of the questions that were raised were illustrated with anecdotes taken from his teaching career. As a group, new professors along with their mentors regularly met to discuss various books, papers, and on occasion we met socially to share a meal. Several senior professors whom I respect have all offered their time and advice on various occasions on various subjects ranging from plumbing to philosophy.

These colleagues embodied what I wanted to become: a caring, competent professor who sought to integrate faith and scholarship and share that with others. To be effective, mentors need to establish caring relationships with those they mentor. The consultations with my mentor were not forced meetings, but I regularly sought his input knowing his door was always open, and that I would be greeted with a smile. Besides being caring, mentors also need to be competent. Part of the reason I sought input from my mentors was that they had the experience and expertise to provide sound advice. The etymology of "professor" is someone who professes something, typically in relation to being an expert in a chosen field. In addition to being competent in their field, a Christian professor also "professes" faith in Jesus Christ and what that means for a chosen discipline. I have learned valuable insights from more experienced professors who "professed" how their faith informs their discipline. Finally, the mentors in my life were all willing to share something of themselves: their knowledge, time, and faith.

This is the cloud of witnesses who gave flesh and bone to the field, the worldview, and profession that I made my own—heroes all.

Topics: Leadership

Dr. Derek Schuurman is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario. His research interests are in the area of robotics and computer vision, but he is also interested in the bigger picture (metaphorically, not in the number of pixels sense). As opportunity allows, he enjoys sharing his thoughts on issues relating to computer technology.