Daily Archives: March 7, 2009

Jack Schwartz: Over the course of a career you can hope for at most a handful of opportunities, and perhaps only one, to be present at the creation of a project that will have real impact.

In late 1972 I had to make a career decision. I had been working on the SETL project and had received a job offer from Los Alamos. So I asked Jack for his advice.

He said that he had applied for five-years of funding to support research and development work on SETL, and was optimistic that the grant would be approved. (It was, and was later extended for another five years, the kind of support that would be unthinkable in this day and age.)

He then said that he felt that over the course of a career one could hope for at most a handful of opportunities — and perhaps only one — to be present at the creation of a project that would have real impact.

He gave as an example his own postdoctoral days at Yale, when he collaborated with Prof. Nelson Dunford and other members of the Yale Mathematics Dept. to produce a series of volumes on Linear Operators, known to mathematicians just as “Dunford and Schwartz.”

“Dunford and Schwartz” was one of the major mathematical works of the past century. It made his reputation as a world-class mathematician. For the rest of his career he has worked in a variety of fields, including SETL, robotics, ultracomputers, and so forth, becoming a world-class expert and researcher in each.

I decided to heed his advice, and I am damn glad I did so.

He was right. I spent almost sixteen years working on SETL. It the most satisfying period of my professional career, bar none. Though SETL is no longer used as a programming language, the project did have quite an influence. For example, SETL was used to implement the first Ada compiler.

SETL also played a key role in the creation of Python, as I have described in my recent post, xo-laptop: Why Python?

I wrote the preceding paragraphs words almost a year ago, in my post xo-laptop: A Little Laptop With Big Ambitions But Little Power. They were true then, they are true now.

I didn’t get my next opportunity for over two decades. Though I didn’t know it when I began working with Philippe Charles in early 1996 on a new project, that project, Jikes, would have eventually have a real impact.

It’s been almost a decade since the Jikes days ended, but I think I had found my next “big project”.

It’s called DELITES-US, and I’ll be writing more about it shortly.

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