Saying Goodbye to a Giant

If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain.” – C.S. Lewis, The Inner Ring

On Friday, April 17th, the software world lost one of its most sound craftsmen.

To my knowledge, he never gave a conference talk in this century. The only paper I know of that in the 21st century was in 2003, on readable-writeable webpages, based on research he did while he worked at Xerox PARC.

Yes, Xerox PARC, the place that created ethernet, the mouse, the windowed operating system and where a young Eric Schmidt learned to manage. It was at PARC that Ken Pier got his start, working on the system design and processor for the Xerox Dorado, the successor to the Xerox Alto, the world’s first recognizable personal computer, with integrated terminal and keyboard. After that Ken spent the next twenty-five years quietly commercializing the ideas that the researchers had prototyped. I once asked Ken how he survived without a PhD at PARC, and he replied with something like “All you have to do is be useful. Make things happen. There is always plenty of work moving from theory to practice.”

Finally Ken wrote that paper on editable webpages and moved on to Socialtext, developing the world’s first commercial wiki. It was at Socialtext that I met Ken, and spent the next three years of my life working for him. Michael Larsen’s experience working with Ken was very similar to mine – here was a boss with high standards, who valued the doing of the work more than any temporary political advantage. I might take that a step further and say that Ken generated political advantage through his contributions to the work. Not by hiding how to do to things – no, Ken wrote everything down. It was simply that no human on earth could keep up with him; you’d be an idiot to lay him off, no matter what he said. This was especially true in a startup fighting for survival.

At company face-to-faces, we’d sometimes spend an hour just listening to Ken tell stories. A friend of mine once used the phrase “Drop some wisdom on us”, which makes me personally uncomfortable, but not when I think back on those conversations with Ken. One evening at his house, I sat and listened until very early in the morning, then got up a few hours later and went back to work.

And, last week, we lost him in this world.

Plenty of people talk about how test lacks respect, or are treated as second-class citizens, or fill-in-problem here. I dare to say that no one ever saw a problem like that on a team that had Ken Pier at the helm. When I re-read the words of C.S. Lewis, where he says the sound craftsperson “…will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys…” the first name that comes to mind in Ken Pier.

Goodbye, old friend.

And thank you.

9 comments on “Saying Goodbye to a Giant

  1. As I said elsewhere, Ken was an Ace’s Ace. I’ve spent the past two and a half years learning way more than I ever thought I would at this stage of the game for me, and Ken helped make that possible. I cannot count how many late nights I’d be working on something, moderately frustrated, and Ken would be on IRC at the same time, and he’d just say “let’s take a look, give me your screen number…” and we’d be off to the races, sometimes late into the night. It was like panning for gold, only the odds of striking it rich went up immensely whenever Ken jumped in. Today, my goal is to move forward and to help build a team I would be proud to call “Ken’s Team”. We cannot hope to replace him, but we can all strive to be worthy of his example. If I can but do just that, I’ll feel very accomplished indeed!

  2. Hello. I am Ken’s widow. Our son, Nathan, found this tonight when he Googled his dad’s name. I cannot tell you how much these blog words and the sentiments behind them mean to us. It’s especially wonderful that Nathan could read such heartfelt praise to his dad. Thank you.

  3. Thank you Matt for writing this about my brother, his loss is really tremendous for all of us. It is great to see how much he was appreciated and the impact he had in his community, we miss him a lot and hope this will help to keep his memory, work and accomplishments to live on.

  4. Hello, I am Ken’s mother and your testimonials to him have touched me deeply. He was my first born at a time when no one believed a baby could learn while in vitro. He disproved
    that by beginning to talk at 8 months, developing words in clear sentences at 11 months.
    By 14 months he was able to meet a friend or relative and form a rhyme suited to him(her).
    His Dad had a photographic memory which he seemed to inherit. Unfortunately, his father
    died without warning at age 57 of a massive heart attack. Ken has always been a son to be
    proud of as were his 2 younger brothers. The youngest also passed at age 39, leaving the middle one, Jerry. No mother should outlive her children, but I, at age 95, am one who has.
    In all my heartbreak, I am consoled knowing that I have been chosen to bear and raise
    3 sons who have been the best of all human beings. I thank you for being a part of his life.

  5. I befriended Ken at Xerox PARC in 1978, and I kept in touch with him ever since. All you say is true. He was full of great stories and insights, and he was always helpful and considerate. He helped on dozens of projects at PARC, even though he generally wasn’t the one presenting papers about them. I learned a lot from this great friend, both technically and personally. Thank you, Ken Pier…

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