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Idea, Implementation, Interaction

System/360 pioneer Fred Brooks teaches design that still shapes computing

Fred Brooks
Fred Brooks, mainframe pioneer, teacher and author (Photography by Jerry Markatos)

Frederick Brooks is famous for pioneering mainframe computing as we know it. As leader of the System/360 and OS/360 projects at IBM in the 1960s, he coined the term “computer architecture,” introduced upward-downward compatibility within computer families and even committed IBM to the 8-bit byte, which supports the lowercase letters you’re reading now. But, as his peers noted in 1999 when granting him the prestigious A.M. Turing Award, Brooks’ legacy gained even greater significance with his decision to share his knowledge through teaching. He’s currently a Kenan professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

At heart, Brooks has always been a teacher. When one of his high school instructors in Durham, N.C., got sick, he took over the trigonometry and solid geometry course. “They didn’t have anyone on faculty who could do it,” Brooks says. As an undergraduate at Duke, Brooks tutored and taught summer school. Then, after earning his doctorate at Harvard under Howard Aiken, he went to work for IBM in New York.

While inventing parts of the IBM 7030 Stretch, then the world’s fastest supercomputer, Brooks was also teaching beginning computing and computer architecture at Vassar and Columbia. “Vassar was first thing in the morning three days a week, and Columbia was three hours on Wednesday nights,” Brooks says. “I was essentially making up new courses.” In fact, Brooks actively continued his own research and publishing to keep open the possibility of a full-time teaching career.

In 1964, when Brooks accepted an invitation to start the UNC’s computer-science department, it was only the second stand-alone program in the country that offered a doctorate degree. North Carolina lagged in computer use at the time, so Brooks was eager to start a graduate program that could train teachers for the state’s high schools and colleges. A stand-alone department was important to attract world-class faculty.

“Most computer science at that time was taught in math or electrical-engineering departments,” Brooks says. “So the research would be constrained by those host disciplines. We wanted to focus on what we considered most important without worrying about whether it was respectable mathematics or engineering.”

Analyzing failure has been the most important way to crystallize learning and teaching throughout his career, Brooks says. His books “The Mythical Man-Month” (1975) and “The Design of Design” (2010) are viewed as essential reading for computer engineers and are widely read outside of the field.

“It’s important to stop after a project and think about what lessons you’ve learned, and that isn’t done enough because the field moves so fast,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed writing because it forces you to think through more concretely what you’ve done.”

Did he have any sense, at the time, of the importance of his endeavors? Certainly at IBM, Brooks says, the stakes were clear: IBM was betting the entire company on the 360 projects. “But I didn’t know it would have as widespread an effect on the world as it turned out to have.”

Questions at the edge of the computer-science field still drive Brooks’ research. He’s working on measuring the effectiveness of virtual environments, such as whether heart-rate changes correspond to similar real-world situations. As with the IBM 360 projects, Brooks can’t predict what lasting effects his work might have.

 

It’s important to stop after a project and think about what lessons you’ve learned, and that isn’t done enough because the field moves so fast.” —Fred Brooks

Sara Aase is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.


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