It will be done when it's done

Steve Wilhite died last week. Yes, he created GIF, but that was just a side project among mountains of mostly single-handed coding projects that were a large part of what kept CompuServe going for years in the face of AOL and the Web.

One of my coworkers recalled:

…many times when asked about a delivery date Steve would answer “it will be done when it is done.”

I laughed when I read that. It was so Steve. It would have been said authoritatively, matter of factly, and any poor project manager involved would have to take that as the final word, because Steve was right … and consistently delivered.

Figure 1: “CompuServe Languages and Tools Group c.a. 2019” by George Jones is licenced under CC SA 4.0

Figure 1: “CompuServe Languages and Tools Group c.a. 2019” by George Jones is licenced under CC SA 4.0

You got the same type of response when asked how to pronounce GIF. To quote Steve “Choosy programmers choose GIF”, echoing an old JIFF peanut-butter commercial, soft “g”. It didn’t matter that the president of the United States disagreed. The president was just wrong. End of story.

Steve was laconic, matter-of-fact and almost always right. He had a knack for knocking out the right project at the right time, be it the 3 DEC10 compilers in the 70s and early 80s, the “Host Micro Interface” (HMI) protocol that let the Information Service move away from text-only command line interfaces, to WinCIM (the CompuServe graphical Interface_UI_Information Manager on Windows). I used capabilities provided in WinCIM to write FTP and Telenet gateways that allowed users to access the Internet. Steve also wrote libraries included in WinCIM that provided enough functionality for me to write a web browser….that was never released :-(. It allowed users without a direct Internet connection (most people) to browse the web which was full of GIFs then.

A lot of the reporting about Steve and his “Webby” award for GIF refers to him working on it with “his team”. I guess I was part of that “team” … he had hired me out of college and I was in “his” Languages and Tools group (Compilers and Runtime Systems) and was 2 doors down when he was parading people in to see the fruits of a project (one of the MANY) he did on the side/at home called GIF that displayed, if I recall correctly, on DOS systems, Windows systems, Atari STs, Amigas, all which Steve had either in his office or at home or both. We did a little collaborative coding to port MicroEmacs to the Amiga which became today’s mg (nee Micro Gnu Emacs) editor, but GIF was just Steve.

Sandy Trevor (CompuServe Executive Technical VP) and others were wise just to let Steve do his thing.

Beyond the code, I think Steve stamped a lot of his outlook on a young me. That’s probably part of why I’ve dodged management at every opportunity. There’s too much “real work” to do :-). Years later, I worked at Amazon for a bit and grew very quickly to appreciate the leadership principals: Turns out, in retrospect, I think they were describing the Steve I knew to a “t”: He was right, a lot, dove deep, delivered results, earned trust, was always learning and curious, thought big and was forever inventing and simplifying. I think Bezos was somehow taking queues from Steve.

Steve also had one quality that a lot of utterly brilliant people lack: He took you (me) where you were. Not everyone went home and read Knuth and CACM cover-to-cover for bedtime stories. He got that. He took you where you were as a programmer and a person. That gave me room to grow personally and professionally at a critical time in life.

There was way more to Steve than GIF. His output was prolific and in his laconic let-your-code-do-your-talking kind of way, he was inspiring. I was privileged to have a front row seat to watch a master at work.

#19 of #100DaysToOffload take 2,