A tribute to Jim Gray

Lost, but not forgotten


He also seemed completely unmoved by the trappings that fame could have bought. For example, I was once queuing for lunch at a conference when I realised that the guy in front of me was Jim. He had on one of those badges of unusual colour that enable you to pass the big, polite, but very firm security guards into the luxurious room with the food that doesn't taste like cardboard. But Jim preferred to lunch with the delegates, finding out what they were working on, proffering help and advice. Whenever he gave a talk he was mobbed afterwards by people wanting to speak to him. He didn't run away after five minutes, but stayed and talked to everyone.

He also managed to combine a wonderfully gentle sense of humour with a complete and uncompromising honesty. This showed up from very early on in his career - in fact, on page one of his PhD thesis.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

Thesis acknowledgments usually try to express in veiled terms the answer to the following question: Pick one:

  1. The advisor wrote this thesis.
  2. The advisor helped write this thesis*.
  3. The advisor helped*.
  4. The advisor let me go my own way*.
  5. I never saw my advisor.
  6. The advisor gave me lots of trouble.
  7. I wish I had never seen my advisor.

Mike has fallen pleasantly into three of these categories [starred]. He has also provided the moral and financial support which has made the unpleasant process of passing exams and writing a thesis almost bearable.

Most postgraduates fantasise about being humorous in their PhD thesis, few are actually brave enough: offend the external examiner and you can spend the rest of your career flipping burgers. And yet, for all the humour, this highlights a real problem about some research supervisors.

Rick Rashid, head of Microsoft's research group, said: "Jim Gray is not only one of the most influential scientists in the world, he is also the kind of person you would want your children to grow up to be. His willingness to give of himself, educate, mentor, support others, solve the hard problems people bring to him, and reach out to make the world better make him one of the field's most loved individuals."

And it is true, mentoring and helping others was what Jim did best. I was privileged to work with him in several different guises. He heard about a group in which I work at Cambridge University – we are using multi-dimensional databases to understand how Darwin developed the Theory of Evolution. He offered to come and see us and, over the course of a couple of hours, listened to what we were doing and then quietly suggested a novel solution to a sticky problem.

It was the obvious answer as soon as he described it, yet I had missed it in the two years we had been working around the problem. And Jim left me almost convinced that I had thought of it myself. He was kind enough to offer to continue to help and we were delighted. The loss of Jim will be felt in our research group for years to come and we are just one of a huge number of groups and individuals that Jim, completely unselfishly, helped over the years.

Oddly, as well as working as an academic, I am also a computer journalist, one of perhaps the most cynical group in the computing world today - the UK press corp. Yet even this battle-hardened group treated Jim with a deference that bordered on reverence. Part of this was down to that complete honesty. In theory he was a PR nightmare because he simply wouldn't lie. I remember at the Yukon Technical briefing in 2003 in Seattle. Jim said of the security in SQL Server 2000 (with reference to the slammer incident): "We screwed up big time, it's as simple as that."

Imagine, just for a moment, that you are a journalist. Imagine the headline you can now write: "Microsoft finally admits it screwed up big time." It is a total gift, but it was never written because it was Jim who said it. Total honesty works both ways and when he then proceeded to explain in detail how Microsoft had addressed the overall screw up (not just slammer), and told us it was fixed, we believed that as well. So we wrote about the fix rather than the attention-grabbing headline.

Jim's reputation also allowed him to transcend the commercial barriers that normally exist between companies. I remember him telling me that certain obscure areas of the SQL language are open to interpretation and that Oracle, DB2 and SQL Server all used different interpretations. The result was that some complex queries returned a different answer, depending on the engine used.

Jim was aware that, at the corporate level, this would take years to settle as none of the companies concerned could be seen to be backing down. So he just quietly arranged a meeting with technical people from all three companies and they came to an agreement. After that, SQL was consistent between the engines. No corporate egos were harmed in the making of those decisions, but the life of the average database developer was made just that little bit easier.

Ultimately, I could list here for you all of Jim's academic and commercial achievements. They were indeed legion, but history will record those. I think it is more important to put on record why so many people cared so much when he disappeared.

It wasn't because of his achievements; it was because of the man. I've met many successful people, I know many kind people; but I have known very few like Jim, whose compassion exceeded his remarkable achievements. ®


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