Valuing people vs hardware

I’m really excited to have been able to share some thoughts and stories through a recent RSE Stories podcast, and after being interviewed for this by Vanessa Sochat (which was a great experience; Vanessa is a good interviewer and a good editor), I realized that I left out one story I meant to tell, and decided to write it here.

As I mentioned in the podcast, I started working for Cray Research on site at JPL shortly before I finished my PhD, and arrived in California from Chicago on January 1st, 1994, to start work on January 3rd. The T3D that JPL and Caltech were leasing from Cray had arrive a bit before that, had been accepted, and was in use, in a rented building near JPL in Altadena.

Two weeks later, at 4:31 am on January 17th, the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake occurred. This was the first earthquake I had felt, and I described it at the time as:

Imagine you are sound asleep, and a giant sneaks into your bedroom, lifts up the foot of your bed, and starts wildly shaking it from side to side.

After I recovered a bit, and cleaned up the things that fell down, initially by the light of my apartment’s gas fireplace until the sun came up since the power was off, I contacted some of the JPL staff who were on-site at the time and were monitoring the system. They told me that I shouldn’t try to come in that day, and that the computer’s cabinet doors had swung open, but otherwise, everything there was fine.

Later that morning, my Cray boss, John Champine, who worked in Minneapolis, called me at home. John was a good and supportive boss overall, but when I answered “Hello,” his first questions to me were, “How is the computer? Was it damaged?”

The T3D that JPL and Caltech leased, behind lots of white men in suits (left to right, seated in front: Tom Hamilton, Carl Kukkonen, John Carlson; behind them standing, left to right: Henry Newman, Cal Kirkhoff, Bruce Jastemski, Tim Frush, Chuck Breckenridge, Alan Kilian, John Champine)

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Chief Scientist at NCSA, Research Associate Professor in CS, ECE, and the iSchool at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; works on systems and tools (aka cyberinfrastructure) and policy related to computational and data-enabled research, primarily in science and engineering

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