I was lucky in the beginning of my life as a computer scientist to be at a school, the University of Wisconsin, that was building on the beginnings of the Internet. We had PDP-11 and VAX computers running Unix. We had the source code to the operating system, and access to the people creating the software. It was where I learned about interacting with people through computers, a concept that has given me a lifetime of great stuff to work on.
But more important, it taught me the power of the open development process. One where ideas and source code are shared, and where you hoped and expected to get back more than you put into it.
I left the university to become a commercial developer, even though at the time such a thing did not exist. In 1979, I left Madison to come to Silicon Valley, where I networked through Apple, where I met Steve Jobs and was told my idea was shit, to Personal Software, where believe it or not there were a handful of people who, like I, believed that you could make software that was used by ordinary people.
We left the Internet development process behind, but it always formed my ideal for working on technology, even though most of my peers didn't understand. Their careers weren't launched the way mine was, with a clear idea of what could be accomplished by working together.
When I went to Harvard in 2003, I hoped to reboot the Internet development process, though I wouldn't have put it in those terms at the time. We had a lot of success. Harvard was the first American university to have a blogging server, and it was used, fairly widely, if not deeply by faculty and students, and members of the community. Anyone with a harvard.edu mail address could have a blog, though we stretched the rules, liberally, with the approval of management, for people who had an interesting idea of how to use it. This was before free blog hosting was stable, so it made a big difference.
These were efforts among users of technology, which is very very important. Without users we are nothing. There's no point creating great technology if people don't use it.
Now I want to do it in a different way. My goal is to create new life for the process that yielded the great stuff we think of as the Internet. Only not the same stuff, new stuff. New uses for computers, and not the obvious ones. I want to do that in universities across the world. Unlike some in tech, I don't feel that universities have outlived their usefulness. Quite the opposite. When the current bubble bursts and we've left our young people without hope, as that is sure to happen, imho, I think we'll be glad to be able to go back to the beginning and reconceive our approach to technology. And at that point, we'll be glad to have a structure to organize around. That's what I want to work on, while everyone is busy with the euphoria of the bubble.
PS: I wrote this story in response to a request from my alma mater that I explain the value that Madison has for me. It's pretty simple. It turned my life in a great, productive and happy direction. That's a lot to ask of a school. But it delivered. I'm sure they didn't know they were doing it, but that's fine. It's not their job to know, just to create an environment where these kinds of things can happen.