The landscape of milk

I’m currently in a project where I am designing and documenting various IT landscapes: organizational, applications, infrastructure.

So while in this very “IT landscape frame of mind” I stumbled across this very interesting diagram on Wikipedia,

I think it’s just brilliant!  I’ve always been interested in the vast number of milk products – even more so after living in Eastern Europe and Western Europe and seeing products (such as quark and saline cheese) that are not available in the U.S.

And it is wonderful that someone could classify all the milk products in this way, to create a very colorful and easy-to-understand visual taxonomy.

Is the slashed zero now dead?

Things change, and in the field of Information Science they change faster than most.  A delightful story of change is provided on the homepage of perhaps the world’s most famous computer scientist, Donald Knuth:

A note on email versus e-mail

Newly coined nonce words of English are often spelled with a hyphen, but the hyphen disappears when the words become widely used. For example, people used to write “non-zero” and “soft-ware” instead of “nonzero” and “software”; the same trend has occurred for hundreds of other words. Thus it’s high time for everybody to stop using the archaic spelling “e-mail”. Think of how many keystrokes you will save in your lifetime if you stop now! The form “email” has been well established in England for several years, so I am amazed to see Americans being overly conservative in this regard. (Of course, “email” has been a familiar word in France, Germany, and the Netherlands much longer than in England — but for an entirely different reason.)

I’d like to single out something similar, probably only known to those of us (like me!) whose history of Information Technology and computers pre-dated with the development of computer monitors: the first application I used was on a teletype machine at a laboratory at U.C. Berkeley.

Slashed O

When programmers started programming in the days even before punched cards, zero’s and one’s were so important  – and in those days, numbers were far more important and frequently used than letters. Therefore, programmers and also typesetters most frequently wrote “slashed o” instead of the letter O, in order to distinguish the uncommonly used letter from the very commonly used number.

If you look on Google you can find many examples of this, usually images of very old computer manuals, like this:


Slashed Zero

At some point after the introduction of high level computer languages, the letter O became more important than the number zero, so programmers use “slashed 0” instead of the number zero, in order to distinguish the uncommonly used number from the very commonly used letter.

Here is a good example of what that looks like:


0 = O: Leave it to the fonts, high resolution displays, and good eyes

Today, it seems rare to see the slashed zero anymore. The computer fonts used in many editors make it very difficult to distinguish between “oh” and “zero” – usually relying on highlighting the entire word or variable when the programmers application developers get it wrong.

I don’t know when the slashed zero fell out of use, but it would be nice if some language scholars have studied and document this before it disappears from human memory.

FYI, most programmers application developers I know not only do not use this convention, but also have never heard of it – so it goes to show you how quickly things change and the past is forgotten!



IT – Does anything ever change?

Around 20 years ago, when struggling to decide if I should shift from a career as a research physicist to a career in IT, I was impressed with the idea that IT changed faster than physics – so I expected a more dynamic, exciting field. What little did I know!

In 1973 my father was editor of the world’s first IT magazine, and he wrote an article entitled “To rollout successful systems, first debug the people problem.”  I’m still trying to find a copy to post. It was all about management of change when introducing new IT systems, and the article is 100% valid today.

A few years later in 1975 an IBM engineer, Fred Brooks, wrote a fabulous book entitled “The Mythical Man Month” containing his wisdom and advice for software engineering projects:

After nearly 45 years, hardly any of the most important core principles has changed. The author himself writes in his newest addition:

In preparing my update, I was struck by how few of the propositions have been critiqued, proven, or disproven by ongoing software research and experience.

So I guess IT has the best of both worlds: new technologies are cool (I was impressed how my Apple MacBook actually logged into my FitBit scale – not the other way around!), new methodologies are exciting (even Agile is now ancient!), but just like in physics, the core principles don’t change.


The Mythical Man Month

I rarely do book reviews, but in this case I couldn’t help.

Back in 1975 I was 10 years old, and an IBM engineer, Fred Brooks, wrote a fabulous book entitled “The Mythical Man Month” containing his wisdom and advice for software engineering projects:

The title of the book comes from an important observation he made about software engineering: if you add more people to a late software project, you’re like to make it even later!  But in addition there fabulous observations about other topics, like prototyping, the different between software development for projects and software development for products, and the like.

It’s just amazing: after nearly 45 years, hardly any of the most important core principles has changed. The author himself writes in his newest addition:

In preparing my update, I was struck by how few of the propositions have been critiqued, proven, or disproven by ongoing software research and experience.

Augusta Raurica and User Experience (UX)

User Experience – sometimes referred to as UX – is defined as encompassing all aspects of an end-user’s interaction with e.g. an IT system or, for example, a company, its services, and its products.  And although you might not think about it, museums can provide a wonderful insight into the field of UX.

I’ve recently blogged about a wonderful collection of Roman ruins scattered in the Swiss countryside, Augusta Raurica.

What’s really a nice touch is that many of the walking paths have markers that explain about the history of the site:

The displays are a combination of old ones dating back to just after World War II, and relatively new ones.

Now here comes the truly interesting part.  The older displays are written in both German and French, and they contain extremely dry, extremely boring historical facts, as this example shows.

The newer displays are written in German, French, and English – and they use a very simple type of writing, and they contain topics that are interesting to a wide variety of people, especially including younger audiences:

It makes you stop and think about who designed the original displays and why.  Were people many years ago more literate and interested in boring historical facts?  Or is there simply more attention paid today to the user experience?

Thomas Friedman may have missed the point

This is Thomas Friedman:

He’s famous to older people for being the first reporter to cover some atrocities in the Middle East. And his book From Beirut to Jerusalem is in my view required reading before anyone can have a conversation on Middle Eastern topics.

But today he more famous to the younger IT crowd for his book The World is Flat.


In that book, he makes the argument that the modern Intranet has flattened the world, permitting the development of truly global supply chains.

Because the subtitle of his book is “A brief history of the 21st century” he is not strictly wrong. But unfortunately, he never points out the far deeper, far older truth that truly global delivery in fact dates back thousands of years!

In their book Global Management in the 21st Century the authors begin by a humbling story that shows, at its core, nothing much has changed in over 5000 years:

“There is evidence of extensive trade between nations as early as 3000 BC.  Some 2000 years ago Herod build the port of Caesarea Maritima. This served as a major east-west trade route with Byzantium and Rome, which were as much as 60 days away by sail. The harbor handled local products like wine, flax, and grain, as well as exotic products like silk and spices, that were brought to the port from Asia by caravan. Imagine the management challenges associated with coordinating shipping schedules with the arrival of products from Asia and the purchase of local products.”

Still more anecdotes explain the challenges of global delivery and multi-cultural teams – efficiently and expertly solved, with a high degree of goal-orientation, but literally thousands of years ago!

So while Thomas made a good observation about the Internet and the flattening of the world, in fact so many of the global delivery challenges the IT community faces today are the same challenges humans faced thousands of years ago.  And the real question is perhaps not what as the Internet enabled, but rather . . . what has the modern nation-state approach led us to forget?

Global Management in the 21st Century

I almost never do book reviews in my blog.

But a business colleague recently asked me for what I thought was the best book on global management and delivery.

The good news: Mendenhall, Punnett and Ricks wrote a 719-page academic tome that is much broader, deeper, and insightful than any other book I’ve seen on the topic.

The bad news: it is out-of-print and almost impossible to obtain – and I will never part with my worn, dog-eared copy!

I do not believe you can ask a question or have an inquiry on any topic that is not addressed to a deep level of detail in this book.  It contains hundreds of references.

I can only whet your appetite with the Table of Contents:

I – Global Picture – Understanding the international management environment

1. Overview

2. Global mgmt in the context of politics

3. The cultural environment

4. International labor relations

5. The global ethical environment

II – International strategic management and operations

6. Global strategy overview

7. Foreign entry decision

8. Implementing foreign entry decisions

9. Adapting management to foreign environments

10. Managing operations globally

11. Organizing and control in global organizations

III – Executing international decisions through staffing and directing

12. Human resource selection

13. Training for international assignments

14. Managing the expatriate manager

15. Special issues for global firms: women and dual-career couples

16. Communication and negotiation in global management

17. Leadership and motivation in global context

Appendix A – Careers in international business

Appendix B – Experiential exercises

Appendix C – Case studies

Valuable resource for IT project managers

I rarely use my blog to give reviews, but in this case I can’t resist. A long time colleague from our HP days and still a very good friend of mine, Mario Neumann, has used his passions for training, leadership, and project management to create some very valuable and very high quality resources: his website, his books, his podcasts, his trainings, and especially, his project management application.

Here’s a screenshot of his application:

And here’s a screenshot of his webpage,

(Yes, you can easily mistake him for Ray Mears!)

But where Mario really shines is in his trainings, which can integrate wide ranging topics such as psychology and human behavior, to present a truly unique approach to management.

Only bad news: because he focusses on the German market, most of his collaterals are only available in the German language. Hopefully that will one day change!


WeChat and the Great IT Divide between East and West

First things first: this is my WeChat QR code:

If you’re like I was until recently, you’ve probably never heard of WeChat. And that is the AMAZING part – that you’ve never heard of it.  Because it is the top social networking service in China, and it is used by around ONE BILLION PEOPLE!

In fact, as I travelled around the southern Chinese island of Hainan, I was impressed that just about every store, and every product in every store, sported a QR code.

This points to the real crux of the situation: a MASSIVE amount of IT in the West, and a MASSIVE amount of IT in the East, and yet despite all this, two huge universes with much little exchange between them than you might think.

I first learned about WeChat on a recent business trip to China.  All my Chinese IT colleagues and IT business partners were eager that we connect.  In fact, even in formal business meetings, instead of the initial round of swapping business cards, we spent the time scanning each other’s WeChat QR codes.

WeChat is a lot more than just instant messaging: it is online payment, email, and a host of other services rolled into one.

And . . . all content and communication with WeChat is strictly controlled by the Chinese government.  All posts and chats are filtered, and any words or topics that do not meet government standards are filtered out.

Final thought: a fabulous website shows the statistics about the number of languages that comprise the Internet:

A look back at the hype cycle

A while ago I published the most recent Garner “Hype Cycle,” which lists buzzwords and tries to give an estimate about how’ll they’ll develop into the market.

So instead of publishing the latest one this year, I thought it would be fun to have a look at a somewhat older Hype Cycle, going back 5 years:


I haven’t done a detailed assessment or comparison, but at a glance it seems like quite a few items from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” are now in the “Plateau of Productivity.”

Extreme Ownership: If you’re in IT, it’s more than worth a read

This is an INCREDIBLE book!

There is no shortage of books written by ex-soldiers, trying to apply military tactics to business scenarios.  Probably the best known example is Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which dates back nearly 2000 years.  So I’m not all that eager to post book reviews on my blog about these books – you can find dozens, all very entertaining, but few giving you real tools you can add to your leadership toolbox.

That is, until now.

Recently a friend of mine recommended I read this book:

It’s filled with real-life anecdotes about Navy SEALs in combat situations, mostly with bad outcomes. And in each case, the authors point out that taking something called “extreme ownership” of a project / task / situation is a critical success factor to ensure success. This means owning the project completely: managing upwards, not just downwards – looking left and right – going far beyond the standard RACI matrix if needed – in short, taking every conceivable action to ensure success.

In their own words,



A little known history of IT offshoring – Part 2

Part II – The Challenge

By Chuck Ritley & Ken Ritley

KEN: Of course, today the ERP concept is an old one – it’s the bread and butter of companies like SAP, and you can get degrees at colleges that teach this stuff.  Now let’s get to your challenge specifically – what was your pain point?

I was supervising the coding of a large enterprise control software package. Somewhat later the industry term became known as ERP – Enterprise Resource Planning. We competed with IBM head-on, a tough crowd. This concept included all the functions a company needed from materials to accounting to shipment.  A few dealers who had made this their specialty sold the software, and so there had to be some margin for customization.

Our pain point – time, time, time. We knew IBM was almost ready for market. The design had many new features, and the market was much different than today. The first company to break into a market could easily wind up owning it.  So our management needed to finish our product and start selling it before IBM or we’d be playing catch-up.  And bear in mind, we were a mini-computer company, competing against the giant of the mainframes.

KEN: Today there are many possibilities to solve the time-pressure problem. Hiring good IT people is not that big a challenge – and if you are really under time pressure, there is a huge market of freelancers and even companies willing to take over coding on a fixed price basis.  How was it different for you?

Our programming team consisted of 8 “programmers” – today known as developers or software engineers. Based on our workload, that wasn’t enough. Now bear this in mind: it was a proprietary world. COBOL was standard only for mainframes, so it you wanted a competent programmer, you needed to find one with expertise in another language and train him or her in your proprietary language. Freelancing was just beginning, and pickings were slim.

There weren’t any degrees in IT as yet, and most programmers got their start by attending schools from one of the manufacturers.  IBM and Honeywell, in those days, had large training programs.  Most programmers available for hire had spent time doing mainframe coding for customers of one of those two giants.  And they might not have coded in the areas we were developing.

As matter of fact, I was recruited to Silicon Valley because there had been a shortage of good programmers and I had both IBM and Honeywell experience. So there were good programmers available.  But not overnight.

KEN: It’s certainly much different today. So what made you think of recruiting an international workforce?

Frankly, the international market had puzzled me for some time.  We had distributors in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain, France, India, and Japan.   What amazed me was that everything we published by way of technical documentation was in English.  The OS, tied directly to the CPU, had the usual English-like commands: edit, erase, format, etc.   The coding language was similar to an abbreviated version of BASIC, rather than the assembler-style used by mainframes.

What impressed me was that each non-English speaking distributor had to have an English speaker on staff.   From time to time, each would send techs to the US, always someone fluent in English, and we would train them.  They would go home and translate everything from OS and programming manuals to the electronic logic diagrams into the native language.  No small task.

But, at the time, the US was the only source of minicomputers on the planet.  IBM didn’t compete at that level.  For example, in Australia and NZ, we were the largest computer supplier.  So distributors who took this route could open new markets at the turnkey level. To support this, we had a programmer and field engineer who worked odd hours to support the time differences and they could provide answers via telex.  (No internet as yet.)

I was most impressed by the staff of our Indian distributors, who were a large multi-product electronics house.  Because English was common, they created their own software with our programming language.  Not surprisingly, some utility software, such as database systems, had market value in the US.


Final coming next: Part III – The Solution

IT Offshoring – It began differently than you might think!

IT outsourcing – offshoring – nearshoring – global delivery?  They’re familiar terms today – in fact, they are buzzwords.  Once they meant only cost-saving, but now these term more often refer to technical excellence.

When I first went to Bangalore in the early 2000’s to manage a global delivery facility for Hewlett Packard, I was amazed. I had traveled India before as a tourist, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bangalore.  What I found was a metropolis of IT.  That was 14 years ago.  Today, depending on what source you read, Bangalore is the center of 41% of all engineering research and development (ER&D) and 39% of all global in-house centers (GIC) in India.  In human terms, it has 530,000 trained technical people.  And that’s just the one city.  Directly or indirectly, India employs about 3 million people in direct IT support, and another 7 million in indirect support.

That’s more than 50% of all global outsourcing.

So – when did this begin?  How did it start?  Where did it start?  Why?  Like Henry Ford’s garage it had simple beginnings.  And in 30 years it has become a mammoth industry.

I first waded into this water in 2005.  But my Dad, now a semi-retired systems designer and professor of computer sciences, remembers start-up days back in the 1970’s and 1980’s – literally decades before many people think “offshore” began.  Together we assembled some memories of those first days that we’ll be publishing in a series of upcoming blogs. I think you’ll find it both enlightening and fun.  It’s like looking back at Mr. Ford’s first assembly line.


The “offshore” model, with my team in Bangalore:


And the “nearshore” model, with my team in Bulgaria:


The story begins here on my Dad’s blog, with the link here:  A little known history of IT offshoring – Part I

Jaw dropping experience

Humans aren’t really so diverse as we might think.

Myers and Briggs created a test to classify people based on their personality. The idea being, that there are just a few types of different personalities. There are plenty of free online versions of the test: you spend a few minutes, answer a few questions, and your personality can be classified into one of several types:

Usually when I manage a team, I ask some of my key team members and high achievers to take this test – and, as happened with me, usually people fall off their chair when they read the detailed description of their personality type and see just how accurate it is, as this example shows.

Why do I find this so useful as a management tool?  I really don’t want or need to know about what Myers-Briggs category people fit into – for me, there are just too many categories to make this a useful management tool. But I find when people read their own self-assessment, it provides them a lot of insight into their own personality, which in turn can help them develop in the team.  In German we call this the difference between Selbstbild und Fremdbild.

Where the “exotic niche” is mainstream

On a recent trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, I was shocked / surprised / stunned to see this advertisement on a public transportation bus:

Here’s a close-up of the advertisement:

Even within the IT community, there is probably only a small fraction of people who will understand this advertisement. And a tinier fraction than that who would be motivated to go find out more about this company.

So it is SHOCKING to see that a company expects enough value in paying for an advertisement like this. I don’t know the demographics of San Francisco, but it now must be one high tech city!

IT Transformation: how the new military and IT are starting to think alike

I was surprised when I saw this recent graphic, posted on a social networking site:

It reminded me at once of a book I just finished reading, but recommend only sparingly: Team of Teams: New rules of engagement for a complex world, by Gen. Stanley McChrystal (ret.). This is his book:

And this is General McChrystal:

If you haven’t heard of him, General McChrystal commanded all of the U.S. Special Forces teams during the 2000’s, and his biggest success is probably the capture of Saddam Hussein.

His book Team of Teams is not a fun-to-read action story of business ideas embellished with special forces military anecdotes; for a good book of that genre, you can try Extreme Ownership: How the Navy SEALs lead and win.

Rather, Team of Teams is a serious academic book that explains in great detail the organizational challenges but also philosophical shift in thinking needed for transforming from the old top-down military hierarchy to a new “agile” approach needed to reach the full potential of elite teams, such as special forces operators.

What I especially like about the book is that it goes into quite some depth, not just about the organizational concept but more importantly, about how to overcome the challenges to get there.



Convergent evolution vs. design patterns

In biology there is the concept of convergent evolution:

“In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.”

In software engineering there is the concept of a design pattern:

“In software engineering, a design pattern is a general repeatable solution to a commonly occurring problem in software design. A design pattern isn’t a finished design that can be transformed directly into code. It is a description or template for how to solve a problem that can be used in many different situations.”

During recent trips to both Spain and Texas, it made me first realize that both convergent evolution and design patterns are describing something very similar.  Have a look at this:

Spain is filled with Spaniards, and as everyone knows Spaniards are very tiny people. So until recently they drove very tiny cars. But recently Spaniards are getting bigger. I took this picture in Spain, which now seems to be representative of how Spaniards park their cars:

Texas is filled with Texans, and as everyone knows Texans are very big people indeed. But in recent times, Texans have been getting even bigger. I took this picture in Texas, which now seems to be representative of how Texans park their “dualies” (as they call pickup trucks with dual rear tires):

Convergent evolution (biology) or design pattern (software engineering) – you be the judge!

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee & the Albrae Street–Taiwan Connection”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

Here’s a bit of history: Intel introduced the 16-bit 8086 CPU in 1978. It was a tad expensive, and soon followed by the cheaper 8-bit 8088. These little gadgets put mainframe logic in a tiny, affordable package. And soon garage wizards figured out how to build full computers.

IBM jumped on it and did the world a big favor: they invented “Open Architecture” with the release of the first IBM Personal PC. A simple design, freely publicized, it opened the door to anyone who could assemble: a motherboard with BIOS, expansion slots, and controller chips; an 8088 CPU; some memory; keyboard; monitor; and floppy disks for storing data. No big deal.

The floodgates opened. Everyone who assembled electronics brought out “IBM compatible” PCs: Zeos, Tandy, Compaq, Packard Bell, AMD, Gateway, H-P, Wang, TI, Sanyo, and – of course – Dell.

For the first time, there was a “free market” for computers. Good? Well, almost. Everyone wants to make money, and the industry had a “price point” of about $1000. You could save a few bucks by buying from Dell or Zeos – but only a few. So “IBM clones” were cheaper, but not that much.

This tidal wave rolled over The Valley, and entrepreneurs started “White Boxing”: building clones from parts at discount prices. The heart of the White Boxing “industry” was Albrae Street, a small street of storefront-warehouses combos, like mini strip malls, right near the mud flats of San Francisco Bay.

DiskDriveThe local “computer press” (like “Computer Currents”, free at the 7-11) ran huge ads, offering PCs for $700 or so. Still too much for the true geeks who thought “If they can assemble one, then I can, too.” So they descended on the White Boxers, not for PCs – but for parts.   I know – I was one of them.

We haunted the warehouses, hunting bargains. And found that even parts could be “cloned”. (Whether or not this was legal is not a priority with geeks.) For example, when you wanted a 5-inch floppy drive, you could buy a Shugart or Memorex (the same as IBM used), OR – – – – you could buy a “knock-off” with no label and manufactured in Taiwan for much less. But, hey, it still worked.

Enter Mr. Yee – who soon became The King of the Bay Area parts empire. Mr. Yee sold full-size clones, with name brand parts, at good prices, and clones with no-name parts at even better prices. His whole extended family worked back in his warehouse, and could assemble a PC in minutes, “burn it in” that night, and you pick it up tomorrow. (I suspect that they all lived back there, too, but parts were cheap, so Immigration can mind its own business.)

Parts – that’s where Mr. Yee shined. Whatever you needed – Mr. Yee had one cheap. No name, no label, but it always worked just fine. Truth be known, this was the beginning of the end for “Made in America”.

I saved up, bought parts for my first PC, and Mr. Yee threw in a copy of DOS and an x86 assembler. A few hours with tools, and it ran. I got a copy of Lotus 123, some utilities, and started on the road to expertise.

A few months later, my son Ken returned from a summer internship at the Oak Ridge National Labs where he had worked on Cray supercomputers, wanted his own computer (not a Cray), and had been saving up. Not impressed that his old man had actually built a PC, Ken preferred one “professionally assembled”, so off to Mr. Yee. Ken went first-class on his order: a full 640K of memory and, as I recall, it was a turbo-chip 8086 which could shift up from its usual 4.7 Hz cycle to a screaming 8.0. The frosting on the cake: a 1200 baud modem.

Those days are gone. Today few users can change a battery. No one has any tools, and help and advice comes by phone from someone in a different country. We used to grow our own food, fix our own cars, sew on our own buttons, and build – and “burn in” – our own computers. Have we evolved? I’m not sure.


This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”


Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Sold Pork Chops”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

If you’ve been to California you’ve seen one of the Fry’s Super Stores. They’re fun to shop, with a huge selection of electronics. Or maybe you bought from their web site?

PorkChopsHere’s a little story. When I moved my family to The Valley, there was a Fry’s Supermarket less than a mile away – walking distance. Smaller than Safeway or Alpha Beta, with good prices and open 24 hours a day, so groceries were close to home.

Fry’s, a family-owned company, had about 10 of these stores in The Valley, and several brothers and sisters ran it. Back in the 70’s, one of the siblings was also a computer fan, and decided to test out a new section in one Fry’s market, down on the Lawrence Expressway. And this section was to be stocked with stuff for true computer aficionados, in between the grocery aisles. It soon became a favorite destination for all computer nerds.

I heard about this, had to see it, and one Sunday, since we needed stuff for dinner anyway, I loaded the family into the Jeep and headed for the Lawrence Expressway.

ChipsArriving at the “new” Fry’s was pure heaven for a computer nerd. Oh, it was still a true supermarket, but there were aisles full of “stuff”. (Bear in mind there were no ready-made PCs. Whatever you needed, you made.) And Fry’s had bread boards, wiring, chips, power supplies, connectors, memory, resistors, CPUs, and tools. Anything you needed to build your vision. (I never ran into Steve Wozniak, but I have no doubts that he was a frequent visitor.)

The family went separate ways. My wife had a grocery list, my youngest son found the aisle with comic books, while my oldest son started perusing the electronic stuff. (This should have given me a clue that he would soon be drawn to computers.) I marveled at a Zilog Z80 – although I wasn’t quite sure how or what I would do with one. But I did find a memory chip that I needed, and put it in the cart.

We left for the day with enough stuff for an evening barbecue: ground sirloin, buns, salad stuff, gallon of milk, 2 comic books, and a 2 mb memory chip. And then went back to search for my oldest son, still perusing the logic section.

So it was a fun stop.   But also a go-to late-evening stop for Valley denizens who were inventing the next generation of electronics. Because it was open 24 hours, at 2 to 3am it was haunted by garage inventors who needed a power supply, bread board, or a handful of connectors. Why wait until the next day? And to fuel these up-all-night pioneers, Fry’s had the junk foods needed to keep them going. Stuff like high-caffeine sodas and Slim Jims. Remember Jolt Cola?

Many years later, I walked into a spanking new Fry’s store near my home. Boring! Just another big PC store.    And a boring crowd debating which mouse was better and asking for the free Windows T-shirt.

Much time has passed, and Fry’s has 2 kinds of stores now: food markets and computer bazaars. But I often wonder. What ideas were born in that one old Fry’s on the Lawrence Expressway? The Altair, the Adam, or the PET computers? Did Steve W. come by for solder and a Jolt Cola? Did some guy tired of floppies come up with the Quantum, Maxtor, or WD hard drive? Or the Hayes or 3Com modems? Did Adam Osborne stop by during a long night of development? But like the apricot orchards, it’s long gone.



This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

We think we know what “geek” means. Wrong! We believe anyone who downloads “apps” to a pad or tab is a geek. Or kids who download free “hacks” (posted by genuine hackers) are hackers. Wrong again.

Geek-dom is an evolution. When I traveled and wrote about The Valley – and when I moved there with my family – I met the real thing: folks who invented geek-dom. Here are some of them. (Yes, I have changed names and identities.)

geekThe Ice Cream Man: I noticed this at a software development facility – every day at 2 o’clock, an ice cream truck rolled into the parking lot and a mob of programmers met it like a “Star Wars” opening. Curious after he left, I strolled through the coding department – and discovered the engine that drove operating system development.   Windows were open and the air was fogged and pungent. In a minute, I was pretty high myself. “Okay”, I thought, “now I know why I have trouble reading code.”   Argue if you will, but the OS always worked just fine. When I visited similar spots, guess what — an Ice Cream Man.

Today, we have a DEA. Because of that, I think OS’s don’t work as well (Microsoft sends hundreds of patches a week). That’s because the Ice Cream men are gone.

Beatrice the Micro-coder: not many of us micro-code. Yes, we write programs, high or low level, forgetting that control chips are also programmed. Chips and controllers have tiny programs supplying logic. Compact stuff, this is written in languages close to pure binary. Even X-86 hotshots are stumped.

Beatrice was the star. She thought in binary. I can’t verify this, but it must be so because she rarely conversed with her fellow beings, except for one-word answers. But all of her controllers worked.

Being a star, she could be odd. She never wore shoes – summer or winter, only seemed to have one outfit and – this is a guess – only bathed in months without an “R” in them. (A good reason for limiting conversations.) She also brought pets to work – sometimes cats or strange creatures.

Gregory the CPU Genius: multi-degreed from Cal Tech, he was a true logic genius. He designed internal CPU logic and, like Beatrice, seemed to think in binary. I say “seemed” because he rarely, if ever, spoke. (There being no verbal equivalent for “XOR”.) In engineering meetings he scribbled notes, and silently passed them to the engineering director. If he scribbled a lot when you spoke, you were probably wrong.

His daily dress was in Hong-Kong casual style, with black smock and cloth slippers. I never saw the slippers wet, so he didn’t go out on rainy days. He might have lived in his office.

That said, here’s how to recognize a genuine geek:

  • They don’t brag – having no interest in talking with ordinary mortals who can’t understand.
  • They don’t wear T-shirts with funny slogans. Those mark pseudo-geeks.
  • They can think in binary or assembler. Anything else loses something in translation.
  • They often smell bad. Not to be offensive, mind you. Hygiene is just low on their task list.
  • They rarely “hack”. Everyone else’s code is child-like – they prefer their own.
  • They ignore your new iPad as it’s too damned inefficient and retarded.
  • They don’t wear Birkenstocks, leaving them to tree-huggers. Having no logic, trees are boring.


This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”


Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “The First Wave of Characters”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

TV gigs like “60 Minutes” show life in The Valley today. Everyone chuckles at bearded Google programmers with bicycles by their desks, environmentally correct sandals, and the engineering gang drinking macrobiotic smoothies.

But these are kids! Newcomers! Freshmen! Squatters writing game code for adolescents in an arena whose history they don’t comprehend. The Valley is an arena, an arena built on blood and grit, by a bunch of tough, smart, future-seeing characters, not afraid to get their hands dirty. They took apricot orchards and turned them into the electronics industry.

Valley_machineThe 70s: I was a mainframe systems engineer turned journalist, covering the computer industry for a publishing house. New companies sprung up: DEC, General Automation, Microdata, Qantel, Basic Four, Four/Phase, Nixdorf, Lockheed, NCR – and more. I wrote about them, and I was welcomed in their offices. And most were in The Valley.

I had a great opportunity to meet some of these characters who shaped the industry. Were they my pals? A couple of them became that. But mostly I’m just pleased to say I met them.

Regis McKenna – You never heard of him? But you know Apple, Intel, Compaq, Microsoft, Intel, and Lotus. Regis is a marketing and advertising genius. Neat inventions need a market. Regis made Apple and Microsoft household words. (Bill G and the 2 Steves had ideas – Regis sold them.) I met him at his office in Palo Alto, trying to sell ads in our magazines. We didn’t. But I had a chance to interview the man who knew where the computer industry could go and HOW to get it there. He was generous about sharing his vision. I doubt he remembers me – but it I’ll remember him.

Gary Kildall – he never bought an ad from us. But Dr. Kildall did two critical things that made the whole industry possible: he invented the BIOS – Basic Input Output System. (It boots up your PC.) Then, he invented the Operating System.   The first was CP/M, the forerunner of DOS. Companies as big as IBM used CP/M. And Dr. Kildall invented it in his garage.

Dick Pick – CP/M and DOS were ground-breakers, but only geeks like me understood them. Dick created a full operating system called PICK (still in use today) that looked like – well, English. No weird codes, and programmers could use: add, subtract, write, compare, input, and print. We never did sell an ad to Microdata, but I’ll remember Dick Pick.

Jim Fensel – Jim knew everyone in The Valley. He ran a small marketing firm, but put together big deals. Software guy needs a hardware guy? Jim made the intro. Someone had a good idea, but couldn’t afford Regis McKenna? Jim knew who to see and get it done. A great find for a writer, and any time I needed a story, Jim knew of one. I came to rely on his tips and we became pals. In fact, every few years, we’d get together on something. We even put together a product deal about 20 years after I had met him. Sadly, I’ve lost touch. Life works like that. But somewhere in The Valley, Jim is putting together a deal.

Doug Baker – a Canadian hockey player who moved South, Doug was a true visionary. He knew computers were useless without programs, and that business programs needed to be so generic that any company could use one. He worked as CEO of a little company called Basic/Four (now the giant MAI Basic Four) in Orange County, took small Z80-based systems, added an OS, and directed development of a set of universal business functions, written in BASIC, that most companies need. And – Wow! – up to 4 users could work simultaneously. Result: the “turnkey” system. A rush of competitors started doing it too – and this was the way the industry went. I was fortunate to work for Doug in later years and I learned this – if Douglas K. Baker said “here’s where it’s going”, that IS where it went.

There were so many more: engineers, programmers, marketing guys, promo guys – all builders. Guys like: Al Cosentino at MAI, Harry LeClair at Tab Products, Adam Osborne, Don Schnitter, Gene Sylvester, Jerry Cullen, Bo Frederickson, Noel Kyle, Mike Dakis, Dallas Talley, Jim LeBuff, – my memory is over-flowing. I’m the richer for having met them. They built the foundation, they made it happen, they were the first. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the other kids – they owe these pioneers a debt they can never pay.


This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part I: “The Way it Was”

A guest blog, by Chuck Ritley

Few people know this: Silicon Valley wasn’t always its name. Nope. It used to be: “The Valley of The Heart’s Delight”. Nothing to do with printed circuits, web pages, iMacs, Google, or the Cloud. No – it was the apricot capital of the world.

I moved there in the 70’s, with my family, just when it was slowly acquiring that new appendage – Silicon Valley.

SV_ApricotsUntil Hewlett and Packard started doing electrical things in their garage in Palo Alto, the Valley was a giant apricot orchard. You see, the Valley is a bowl, surrounded by the Santa Clara Mountains on south and east, and the Santa Cruz Mountains on the west. While San Francisco, 50 miles north, is cold and foggy, the Valley, protected all year long by the hills, is 20 degrees warmer than SFO, and sunny – in short, the perfect apricot climate.

Ringed around downtown San Jose, the Valley’s hub, companies like Dole, Libby, and Heart’s Delight had huge canneries. Empty 6 months of the year, during the summer and fall when the ‘cots were ripening, they came alive. With the harvest, thousands of migrant workers came in for the picking. The canning and packing was done by mostly local help who worked part time for those months of the year. And the factories spewed out train loads of canned, dried, preserved and juiced apricots.

In the spring, the Valley was beautiful. The trees started blooming, and everywhere you looked there were gorgeous blossoms. Places were named after them: Blossom Hill Road, Old Orchard Drive, and even a town: Blossom Hill. It was odd driving the roads and even the expressways. Here would be a tract of houses, and there a huge apricot orchard. Even the streets in the housing developments were often lined with apricot trees, making for a slippery walk when they were falling.

But – Wow – what a wonderful place to be in the spring. We lived at the far north end of the Valley, but close enough to enjoy it all.

How many apricots? I have no clue. But I do know that a few miles from my home, on the mud flats of San Francisco Bay, there was a charcoal factory. I couldn’t figure that out. Why build a charcoal factory where there aren’t any forests? Well, next time you eat an apricot, notice that half of it is in the seed. Little fruit, great big seed.

So, if you ship out 100 tons of canned apricots today, what do you also have? 100 tons of apricot seeds. You can’t eat them. Can’t throw them out, else the Valley would be awash in pits 3 feet deep. So – since they’re fiber – you dry them out, roast them, burn them in a kiln, and press them into charcoal briquettes.   And, you need a giant factory down on the mud flats to do it. Here’s a fact: for every pound of apricots, half a pound of charcoal. But then no one really wanted it known as “Charcoal Valley”. (Sound like a bluegrass song title?) So the factory sat a few miles north on the mud flats in Alameda County, and garden of beauty remained beautiful.

But like the Eden of the Book of Genesis, big changes were afoot. Man was coming. Binary man, AC/DC man, silicon man, logical man, and program man. They were on the way and nothing could halt the tide.


This guest blog was submitted by Chuck Ritley, an adjunct professor of computer science with several major universities in the San Antonio area.  

Here are the links to the other blogs in this series:

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 1: “The Way It Was”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 2: “First Wave of Characters”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 3: “Evolution of the Geek”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 4: “When Giant Sold Pork Chops”

Reflections of a Valley Guy – Part 5: “Mr. Yee and the Albrae Street – Taiwan Connection”