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An Interview with Watts Humphrey, Part 18: The Move to SEI

In this transcript of an oral history, Grady Booch interviews SEI Fellow Watts Humphrey. In Part 18, they discuss Watts' "Outrageous Commitment" to work at the Software Engineering Institute and how he made the decision to move on from IBM.

This interview was provided courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

See the entire interview.

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My Outrageous Commitment

Booch: This brings us to the end of your IBM-ish time. I do want to hear about your vision for the future bit, and then we'll transition to the SEI.

Humphrey: Great. Okay. Well, at that point, I was now 59 years old and I was debating what do I do next? I'd been talking to Jack Kuehler and others about where I go. Jack was president. I had a lot of friends, and was wondering what to do. Erich Bloch was an old friend of mine, who had left. He ran the Fishkill lab, the semiconductor labs. He'd been a VP of various stuff. Great guy. And he'd gone down to be the head of the National Science Foundation. I guess that's what he was. Reports to the U.S. President. So I knew Erich, I knew a lot of these people, and I was debating what to do. I remember one day, one of our daughters -- our number three daughter -- really urged Barbara and I to go to a seminar. Did you ever hear of Werner Erhard?

Booch: Can't say that I have.

Humphrey: The EST system, have you ever heard of it?

Booch: I have not.

Humphrey: Well, he had this self-help kind of thing where you analyze things and people think about it. It's for people who are kind of troubled and misfits and that sort of thing. He had a seminar, all kinds of stuff he'd do where people would go there and they'd have big groups of people and have all these discussions. He was kind of a spellbinding speaker, lots of interesting stuff about how people ought to work together and work out your problems and resolve them all, this sort of thing. It was kind of sad, because he wrote these books and had this great story, and was really very convincing, but it turned out later he had all the problems -- he was talking about in his own personal life. He had terrible problems with his kids that he'd never worked out. In any event, a lot of this stuff he pushed was quite persuasive and quite interesting.

So we did go to a seminar he had on commitment. I think it was just a day, maybe two days, I don't know. It was in New York City, and our daughter went with us. Basically, the commitments they were pushing were people committing to do more of this Werner Erhard stuff. But they talked through commitments, and they basically were talking about, “You ought to make an outrageous commitment, something that will really capture you.”

One of the ones they were talking about was stamp out world hunger and that sort of thing. None of that was terribly interesting to me, but basically, as I was thinking about it, I thought, “You know, what I really need to do is to figure out what I am going to do for the future and think about that.” That's what I was struggling with. And I'd been struggling with what I wanted to do next. Did I want to be a consultant, did I want to be a this or a that? I concluded, “No, let me think about this. I want to commit to do something.” I had been concerned, because I'd meet with customers, I'd look at our labs, and the software business had not really progressed very damn well. We'd made a lot of progress in IBM, but the rest of the world was nowhere. And they weren't getting anywhere. They were just sort of coasting along, writing programs the same way for 40 years, and it didn't look like it would ever get better. It wasn't 40 years then, but in any event, the programming methods and the practices, people were doing crappy work.

There's no other field where you bang out code and fix it and test. Automobiles, when you manufacture them and fix them in test, they're lemons and they always will be. You'll never fix them. You can't make semiconductors by fixing them in test, and the software community wasn't focusing on building quality products before test. They were counting on testing, and as you and I know, a test is a very inefficient way to find defects. It takes forever, it's unpredictable and it doesn't find very many. So I felt the programming world was in terrible shape, not only in terms of quality management, in terms of schedules and estimates and planning and controls and tracking the whole business. It wasn't run like a business.

And so I decided what I was going to do, I was going to make an outrageous commitment and I was going to fix programming or change programming and that was what I was going to do. So that seemed like a great idea. The next question is, “How the hell do I do that?” I talked to a bunch of people about it and I talked to Jack Kuehler about it, and Jack said, “Well, why don't you go talk to Erich Bloch?” I said, “That's a great idea.” So I got hold of Erich and went down to Washington and I met with him, had quite a discussion. He said, “What you ought to do is go to the Software Engineering Institute. They're just starting it up.” He said, “I know the guys there. I could contact them and you could go talk to them, see if you'd like to do that.” I said, “That sounds like a great idea. Could you write to CMU for me or to the SEI?” He said, “Sure.” He said, “You write the letter and I'll sign it.” So I put together a letter and sent it down to him and he sent it. And I then got a call, went to visit with the SEI, and the rest is history, so there we are. So that's how I ended up at the SEI with my -- what’d I call it -- my outrageous commitment to change the world of software.

Booch: So tell me the state of the SEI at that time. Larry Druffel was of course in the midst of this, and I haven't heard his name in it. Where did he come in on the scene?

Humphrey: Okay, well let me back up.

Booch: Sure.

The IBM Prodigy System

Humphrey: I realize there's one thing I forgot to mention. I didn't mention Prodigy. The Prodigy system, one of the guys, an old friend of ours, Ted Papes, had been a systems executive. IBM had started-- you know what the Prodigy was? Ever hear of it?

Booch: I don't remember, no.

Humphrey: IBM started this online system--

Booch: Oh, that Prodigy. Yes, I remember now. Tell me more.

Humphrey: --an online system, and it allowed people to come in and use all these fancy features that would allow them to access encyclopedias and play games and do reference work and all kinds of stuff. It also allowed them to send messages, and Ted Papes was running it. The problem they had was, with Prodigy, that nobody wanted to use their encyclopedias and all that other stuff. They all wanted to send messages. So they kept screwing around with the system and the pricing, to discourage all this message stuff, so they'd start to use it right. I thought it was hilarious. The marketing people, and the whole crowd, basically, here the customers were telling them what they wanted to do. IBM had a lock on the whole message business from the word go. Nobody was paying attention to it. It was just extraordinary. So that's what happened. But anyway, so that was the Prodigy story. Okay, well back to your question on the SEI and the status of it at that time.

Joining SEI

Humphrey: Well, as I say, I wrote this letter for Erich Bloch and he sent it in. They called me right away. The director of the lab was John Manley. He had me come out there, and I went out and visited. It was rather funny. One aside -- [a] personal coincidence -- I have a sister, actually, she's a step sister, who lives in Pittsburgh. I was debating whether I ought to call her or not and talk about my coming, but I decided not to. I got hold of some friends we had that were right in town. She lived a little out of town, so I did not call her. I thought, I'll just go out and if I go out there, I'll get hold of her later. So I got down to the TWA terminal in JFK and was walking around waiting for my flight and someone called my name. “Hey, Watts!” There was my sister. She and her husband were coming back from Europe. “Where are you going?” Well, I was going to Pittsburgh and I hadn't told them. Boy, was I embarrassed. These things happen to you. If I'd known she was there and was looking for her, I never would have found her. But in any event, so I've had multiple events like that in my life.

So I did go out there and I talked to the SEI. They originally wanted me to be the director of the technology work. I didn't want to do that. I mean, I talked to all the technology guys to see what they were doing, and they had all these great little things they were doing in terms of inventing little database approaches and this and that. None of them were going to change the world of software. I didn't see that they were going to help anybody. I didn't know why they were doing these projects and so I kept asking, “Why are you doing that? What's that going to do?”

The SEI mission was pretty clear. We were supposed to actually go out and fix the way software was done. I didn't see any of this technology work doing anything to solve software’s problems. And so the technologists had no interest in me, and I had no interest in them. So I went back at the end of the day to John and told him that I was interested in coming, but I didn't want that job. He said, “Well, we're going to have to figure out a job for you, because we certainly want you here and we need your help. Why don't you come out as a special assignment for me, and we'll figure out what your job is when you get here?” I said, “Fine, that's okay.”

Doing vs. Being

There's one thing I wanted to mention here by the way, and it was interesting, because I didn't really notice it until along right about in here. The transition. This was sort of the ambition point. The transition from wanting to be something to wanting to do something. It was an enormous change, because now all of a sudden, I wasn't worried about being king or being promoted to director or anything else. I had something I wanted to do. I had a commitment and I wanted to do it. It enormously freed my thinking. I was able to think rationally about what I wanted to do, and I realized-- it took me a while to realize it -- but the problems I had with getting promoted to be company president, and the flap I had with all those people and that sort of thing, meant my career had topped out, it was probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me.

Because all the people that I had known that had moved on up— I was never going to be CEO. I might have made it to president, but every one of them that I know, they were great people and all of that, but they’ve all disappeared from sight. I had no idea what they were doing. I mean Learson showed up. He was working on the law of sea. He got involved in something like that and a few of the other people did, but not many, and the Opels and the Careys and the Akers and all those guys kind of disappeared from view.

Here, you were at a point where you knew more than you ever knew before in your life and you have an opportunity to really do something. Thinking about doing instead of being really frees you up enormously. I realized a lot of the things that I had done, even at IBM; I had not— for instance, when I was running the lab, I had not really looked at how we could re-do our strategy and how we could really look at the printer business in particular. I put Sy Tunis in as running the printer group shortly before I left the lab and he basically got competitive printers in and disassembled them and looked at how they were built.

He had a whole bunch of things - very creative, thinking about how to do this job better that had never occurred to me. I was kind of amazed. I didn’t realize how much my passions and my thinking had been tailored or colored by ambition as opposed to really focusing on getting something done. And so, that’s something I think about. It’s hard for people to learn that, but it’s enormously important. I was basically free. All of a sudden, I wasn’t worried about being director of anything. I wanted to get some work done.

Booch: Would it be fair to say that you were entering, therefore, one of the most creative parts of your life?

Humphrey: Yes, I would say that’s absolutely true. I’ve learned more in the last ten years, for instance, than I think I’ve learned in the rest. I mean it’s amazing, except for the first ten years or so. But, it’s been a marvelous experience and very rewarding. So, that’s, I think, a very key point. In any event, so I went back. We agreed I was to join the SEI, agreed on a salary. IBM very generously made me an award on retirement, which was nice. So, everything looked great.

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