Getting to know ourselves


Last month, Dr. Edgar F. Codd passed away at the age of 71. You may not recognize the name. But then, until I read the news, I didn’t either. The British-born scientist drew up the first ever model for relational databases ? the concept of storing data in a way that made it possible to cross-reference, and one that is widely used today. In short, he helped make databases useful. He also coined the term On-line Analytical Processing, or OLAP, to describe software that accesses data, and tests its effectiveness.

When Codd wrote his first papers in 1970 introducing the concept of relational databases to the world, he did so as an IBM employee. But the leading lights at IBM were unimpressed, and they remained so until 1978 when the then-CEO attempted to capitalize on Codd’s ideas. By then, an obscure California entrepreneur named Lawrence Ellison had already built a start-up company that pitched a database product built on Codd’s principles. Today that company is known as Oracle.

Codd also has a Canadian connection ? the Oxford and University of Michigan grad, mathematician and computer scientist, and World War II RAF fighter pilot moved briefly to Ottawa in the 1950s.

Years later, in recognition of his work, he received the A.M. Turing Award.

I should point out that I’m heavily indebted to an Associated Press wire story for the information I’ve just provided, which brings me to my point. When I came to work the day after I read the piece, I visited Oracle’s Web site, looking for some background info or any mention of Codd. I found a brief mention of his name. So I visited IBM’s site, confident I’d find something there. There were a few odds and ends, but nothing specifically designed for visitors to learn about him. IBM eventually posted a more detailed page on its site noting Codd’s passing and his work.

I’m sure Big Blue could fill volumes praising the innovative work of its staff and its alumni, but Codd was a true pioneer ? the impact of his work is wide-ranging and today touches most major companies. I don’t doubt he had lots of help. But it’s his name on the paper. If I were in charge at IBM, I would have wanted that fact well known among the general community much earlier.

Our industry is rare, in that many of its pioneers are still alive, or at least had a chance to work with many of today’s younger leaders in the latter stages of their careers. I recently attended a seminar at Toronto’s York University, where a professor named Andre Arpin talked about his experience as a member of the team at a fledgling Canadian company, Micro Computer Machines, that designed the world’s first personal microcomputer, the MCM/70, which debuted in May 1973.

There’s a widely held stereotype that our industry is made up mainly of robotic technocrats fascinated by the intricacies of technology that few understand. That can be forgiven. People who buy into that are not close enough to this industry to see some of the fascinating people that make up IT.

We should do our best to make their names known.