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An Interview with Watts Humphrey, Part 30: The TSP Team and Six Months to Live

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In this transcript of an oral history, Grady Booch interviews SEI Fellow Watts Humphrey. In Part 30, Humphrey discusses starting the TSP team at SEI, finding out he had inoperable cancer, and starting piano lessons at age 80.

This interview was provided courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

See the entire interview.

From the author of

The TSP Team

Humphrey: We formed the TSP group in about 1996 or '97, and Jim Over became the leader of the very small group. Jim Over and Dan Burton joined us. Dan was an interesting guy, by the way. Dan had been a Major, I believe, in the Air Force and was in the program office that formed the SEI. And so when he retired from the service he couldn't go work at the SEI right away, so he worked for a year in one of the local software companies. He was doing software development, and then he came and joined us. And so he's been on our team ever since and been a marvelous asset. We had a bunch of other people. Julia Mullaney was in my first PSP course and she joined us, and then we gradually built a team, rather slowly. We didn’t have much funding, and we've been fighting the DOD on this thing since the beginning by the way.

And I basically never got funding for this stuff. It was my own work and we basically had to almost self-fund. We got some funding and some backing but not a whole lot and so we have been scrambling to try to get this thing done ever since. And it was years of that with no one really understanding what it was or buying it or anything. Even in the SEI. And the DOD people who have worked on this, for some reason they had a very negative view of the PSP and the TSP, and I think it was because they had a negative view of me, and I'm not quite sure why. But they fundamentally got working on the CMMI integrated thing, and I was focusing on software, and I guess they felt that I was too narrow or something. I don’t know.

Booch: And if my history serves me correctly, this is around the time of the DOD having its specifications for software development that was-- what was it -- 493 or 2167? I'm trying to remember the numbers.

Humphrey: Well there was 2167 in there.

Booch: That's right. As I looked at that relative to the work that you were doing, you can see that these were on very different paths. And your work hadn't yet influenced that activity yet.

Humphrey: Exactly. Exactly. And it really hasn't yet. I'm not sure who we're influencing except ourselves and industry. Not influencing that crowd. But in any event, so we realized rather quickly we had to have people teach this stuff. And so fundamentally the group watched me teach and they started teaching it. And then we realized rather quickly we needed more instructors because we were starting to run into more companies. So we put together a course to train instructors, and we put together a course to train coaches. And then we started working with other people who wanted to form their own companies and go out and introduce the PSP and TSP.

And that's sort of what's been happening over time, although typically the bulk of it is still us. Although we find that the people who are trying to make a business out of this are not doing all that well yet. But we do when we start with a company like Microsoft or Oracle or Intuit or people like that. Adobe is another one, who buy it and they're doing it -- we train their own people to be their own instructors and coaches so they become self-sufficient. And so that's what we do there so that people can do it on their own, and we can begin to grow it and expand it. And they can train their own resident coaches. People have to have coaches on site because having remote coaches come in is difficult. We have to do it when we start, but we really like people to get their own coaches.

Booch: So that brings us to the late '90s then. And it sounds like, you know, the next several years were still largely consumed with growing that activity. And growing the teams and spending a lot of time out with real customers doing this. Is that a fair characterization?

Humphrey: Yeah. We had to improve our courses and the training and the tools and begin to build credibility and get more people familiar with what we're doing and what's going on. And that worked fine. And so we've made a lot of progress, and there are a lot of people using this. We've got hundreds of companies that now use the TSP.

Booch: Now.

Humphrey: That's enough on how we started the TSP.

Booch: It's my recollection that you and I ran into each other around that same time as well. Wasn't it on, gosh it was on some Army project that you and I were together on. Was that?

Humphrey: That was early. That was very early, that was in 1989 I believe, '88 or '89.

Booch: How quickly I forget.

Humphrey: That was the AFATADS project and it was at Magnavox.

Booch: Yes I remember now. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Humphrey: Out in the middle – Indiana -- I think someplace like that.

Booch: Yes. Yes. Yes.

Humphrey: You and I were there and I remember the people going by the door, that's Grady Booch. …your Ada book…

Booch: That's right.

Humphrey: And so, yeah. No, I remember that well. We had actually an audit as I recall for the Army.

Booch: Yes. Yes.

Humphrey: And as I recall, prior to the audit, I had led a CMM assessment of that facility. So I'd already done an assessment of the location, I knew a lot of what was going on inside the group, but I promised them that if I was on and I -- this was part of what we agreed with their management because they were -- we were called in by the Army to do an audit of them, and I was reluctant to participate unless it was an effort that Magnavox was actually participating in. So there would be a joint effort, and we report to their management, and they finally agreed with that, so that we had that worked out before I did the assessment there.

Booch: Right I remember that now.

Humphrey: Yeah. So this was way before the PSP and TSP started.

Booch: How quickly I forget. Well I hope I have as good as a memory as you do in the order of things.

Humphrey: I plug them in to where I was to this whole thing. I sort of see it in terms of the time frame when I published the book on that, and so I sort of have a time scale there. Well, as I say the cycle we went through now was to expand this, and there are a few stories that I want to tell you with what we're doing with Mexico and some other countries. What's happening, the large system issues, what we need to do there. What's ahead, what we're doing as we move out of just software into other fields. There's some things there that I think are interesting, and then I want to get into sort of what next and where we're going.

Booch: Very good. let's turn the topic of discussion to where is [PSP] now and kind of where is it headed. Can you take us from there?

Humphrey: Great. Love to. And, by the way, I very much appreciate all the time you're taking. We've had some 14 hours of interview so far so it's sort of babbling on, and I must admit it's great fun to relive all this and talk through it.

Okay, well, where we stand right now, very briefly: we've got a group of about 10 people at the SEI in Pittsburgh, a couple others work remotely. I work, for instance, here in Sarasota, Florida. Jim Over leads the TSP team, and I work on the team. I'm a member of the team. Although I originated all of this stuff, I'm not there, and I really am not able to take all the trips and go around and do all of those things. I decided long ago that my main focus would be on sort of the longer-term stuff, putting together textbooks to support it, sort of ideas, going out and giving keynote speeches, that sort of thing. So I'm sort of the grey-haired eminence behind the scenes here going out and talking to lots of people and trying to be visible and, unfortunately, my current cancer is keeping my travels limited and it may for awhile.

Six Months to Live

Booch: What would you be willing to sort of interject here about your current cancer? You and I have talked about it. We don't really have anything on tape there. Would you feel comfortable spending a few minutes talking about that situation?

Humphrey: Of course. Sure. Yeah. Well, I remember exactly when it hit. It was February 19th this year [2009]. I was feeling great. Came back from lunch with some wonderful friends and, about 4:00 in the afternoon, I got chills and fever and I just couldn't get warm. I bundled completely up, went to bed. About 9:00, I got up and called Barbara about, you know, “I don't feel very good” and I passed out cold. <laughs> So she called 911, they took me into the hospital. This was late on a Thursday night, about 9:30/10:00 Thursday night. They got me into the emergency room and started doing tests, obviously, to see what the heck it was. They got me in a room there and, during the day on, I think, Saturday, they came back and said I appeared to have a blood infection. It's not easy to get blood infections. But, in any event, I had an infection in my blood and I asked the doctor, "How serious is that?" and he said, "If you weren't in good shape, you'd be dead."

Now, that got my attention. Now the challenge was to find out what caused this infection and, of course, they started me on all kinds of antibiotics and they really blasted me with them. Sunday they took me down to do various scans and things, and Monday the doctor went down my throat with one of these things to probe and see where the infection or where the problem was, and they obviously produced a report from the CAT scan and all the other stuff that was going on. My doctor faxed it to my daughter, who's an M.D, and Tuesday she called me and said, "Dad, you've got cancer of the liver and they say it's inoperable."

I said, "That doesn't sound good." Well, the doctors hadn't told me and, of course, they had more tests to do and stuff, but my daughter knew I wanted to know what was going on so she told me. So I arranged to get out of the hospital right then. They'd finished all the stuff, antibiotics and stuff, and they finally let me go Wednesday morning, and I went to see the oncologist and he said, yeah, it was cholangial carcinoma of the liver, that those cancers do not respond to primary treatment with either radiation or chemotherapy and that, in my case, mine happened to be inoperable.

I said, "Well, how long have I got?" and he said, "Three to six months." This was four months ago. So, you know, that's a bit of a problem. <laughs> The doctor, by the way, told me what we should do is to look for somebody who had an experimental treatment or something that may deal with it. Other than that, I'd just have to wait, and we could decide whether I wanted to do chemo or radiation or not but there was no evidence it would help extend my lifespan.

So, in any event, it was kind of dismal. So my MD daughter came up with Sloan-Kettering in New York as the hospital that had the most publications on this and seemed to be doing the most. The oncologist contacted them and they said, "We can't even talk to him for three weeks," which didn't sound too good. <laughs> Not what I would call responsive. Another daughter actually had a college classmate who she thought had gone into cancer research. This is a long story, but I might as well get it on the table. And so she sent him an e-mail, got his e-mail address off the Internet. His name was Dr. David Fisher. Turned out she got the wrong Dr. David Fisher's e-mail address but, by sheer staggering luck, he knew the right Dr. David Fisher and forwarded it to him. He's at Massachusetts General Hospital and he had a very close friend who's the top oncologist for liver cancer, GI cancers at Mass General. He sent him the e-mail and he got hold of my daughter, like, within the hour and said, "I'll see him Monday."

Well, that sounded pretty damn good to me, so we headed up to Boston and, when we came in Monday, he'd gotten the top cancer surgeon from Mass General and the director of all the radiation therapy and stuff, both of them to see me Monday afternoon, squeezing all this into their very busy schedules. I mean, it isn't like these guys have nothing else to do. So I was enormously impressed. They were thinking of me as a person, not just another case. The surgeon said, "Yes, there is no way we can operate on this cancer. It is, in fact, impossible to remove it to surgery." Then the director of radiation therapy there from Mass General said, "It turns out, we have an experimental program with National Institutes of Health using something called proton radiation."

It turns out proton radiation -- I had the guy describe what was going on -- and what they do is they use a cyclotron and they actually radiate the cancer with protons, and the proton radiation has a particularly powerful profile when it actually impinges on the body because, if you use high-energy protons from a cyclotron, the protons go right through the outer layers of the skin and stuff, and then they gradually slow down and finally get captured at some depth, depending on how much stuff they've gone through and they dump most of their energy where they're stopped. About 70% of the proton energy goes right to the cancer.

They have a way this guy had come up with to do that, and the real invention was that the liver moves when you breathe. So normal radiation treatment doesn't work with the liver, so he'd come up with a way to actually gate it while you breathe and all that sort of thing. So if you have to stop breathing, that's a little counterproductive. But, in any event, so they accepted me in the program. They'd had 15 people so far and the program was for 15 people, by the way, so I thought, oops, I'm out. It turned out he'd gotten permission from the NIH to continue using it before the Phase II study started in four months. These guys were thinking of people and so he <laughs> really -- it was amazing because everything they did, they were talking about it, they wanted to know about me and my family, and it was just so marvelous to deal with these doctors who were really so personally involved and concerned.

But I got into the program. I completed all the radiation treatment. The first 14 patients they had completed, it appeared to have eliminated the cancer in the radiation field. So it looked like it is completely successful on eliminating the primary cancer. That doesn't mean it's over, however, because, in over 80% of the cases, this cancer metastasizes, it's kind of aggressive, and so I’ve got to continue chemo and stuff like that. Apparently,  just in the last few weeks, at the cancer society that my Dr. Ryan up there at Mass General went to, the oncologist, he learned about a new chemo treatment that is quite effective, like, 40%. So the odds here look not too bad and it looks like there's a chance that I may actually have it cured. When I talk about life expectancy, they say, "Yeah, you've probably got, you know, two to three years maybe and you may be lucky and go longer than that."

But the rule basically is to take it a month at a time and that's essentially what I'm doing. So I'm in that treatment. I'm in the chemotherapy. I went out -- I'm a jogger, that's why I'm alive, I guess -- and I went out and I had a jog and a walk yesterday. I don't have a whole lot of energy, it’s kind of tiring, but I'm feeling fine. I'm very optimistic. I just went out last week and bought a baby grand piano. I'm taking piano lessons and starting to work on another book and so, you know, you just go ahead and do what you're going to do.

Booch: Thank you. That's great. You're truly a renaissance man. You're learning to play the piano at your age. That's great. Have you played before?

Humphrey: I sort of fiddled with it but I never had lessons really. I'd had violin lessons as a kid. My older brother got piano lessons and, after I practiced the violin for about -- it must have been six or seven years -- I finally concluded I had to practice an hour a day just to be a lousy violinist, and so I quit it. I've always wanted to play the piano, but the problem is, as I got older, I hate to sit down and practice and, you know, you've got to repeat things ten times and all that kind of stuff, which is kind of annoying, and I'd bother everybody and you feel kind of you don't want to do that. So I did get an electronic piano with ear phones about three years ago and I started fiddling with that, and I learned about fake books and stuff. Then two years ago, I went over to the piano dealer and was asking him some questions and asked him if he knew anybody who would give me lessons, and so he's giving me lessons. I started piano lessons two years ago, the day after my birthday, the day after my 80th birthday. I figured I was old enough. So I've been doing that and Barbara finally agreed that, yes, we can have a grand piano, so I bought one last week and they're installing it the day before my birthday, they say, next week. So that's what we're doing. I'm having a wonderful time and, as I say, you live a day at a time.

Booch: And almost happy birthday because you'll be turning 82 on July 4th, I believe you said.

Humphrey: That's correct.

Booch: Great, great.

Humphrey: I will say, in terms of all this stuff on the radiation treatment, this particular treatment I'm getting is not public. There aren't any papers on it yet. It's totally experimental. It's the only place in the world. I'm the 16th person in the world to get this treatment. I just feel enormously fortunate to have somehow stumbled into this all but, as the accidents that happened, I mean, if the people at Sloan-Kettering had said, you know, bring him right up, I would never have run into this.

Booch: Yeah.

Humphrey: A whole range of things have happened and my daughter and the accidental e-mail and I just sort of go down the list and say, if look at it in terms of probabilities, it's about as close to a miracle as they get. So I'm feeling totally blessed.

Booch: Very good. Well, we got to this point because you mentioned you've sort of changed your work style because of the cancer and thank you for that little side track there to discuss it. Let's go back now to where you're involved with TSP and where it's headed.

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