Imagine another era of computing history: erase the CIT, convert your monitor to monochrome. Your phone isn’t a smartphone or even a cell phone, but at least it probably isn’t rotary anymore.
This is the age that Jeff Coady and Dorinda Moulton started their 30-year Brown CS careers in.
They’re ending those three decades at a time when a two-year-old computer is middle-aged and a five-year-old one is virtually unusable, but despite the change and challenges, they’ve survived, thrived, and contributed immeasurably to Brown CS. Their success is a tribute to their talents, but their story reveals some unexpected truths about putting knowledge into practice and building interpersonal bonds that anyone can learn from. All of us wish Jeff and Dorinda well and thank them deeply and sincerely for their tremendous service.
We Learned A Lot
Jeff joined Brown in the summer of 1983 after previously working at Raytheon. Located at 151 Thayer in a building that now belongs to the Math Department, Brown CS was small, but Jeff remembers some familiar faces: “Andy van Dam, John Savage, Tom Doeppner, Dave Durfee, Dave Johnson, Joe Pato, Marc Brown.” He was hired to manage the installation of a network of Apollo workstations that (among many other things) ran a cutting-edge program called BALSA to allow visualization of algorithm behavior.
Another sign of the times? This was the first generation of undergraduates to use desktops, and Jeff notes that even in 1983, the department’s facility was a powerful force in recruiting faculty and students. (Photos of Brown CS students sitting at their workstations featured prominently in Brown University promotional materials.)
Unfortunately, the operating system was immature and the demands were too great. There was downtime, frustration: Apollo engineers came to Providence to work on the system at length. “We learned a lot,” Jeff explains. “What a different time! You can’t compare the computing power in those early machines to what we have even in our smart phones.”
“A year later,” continues Dorinda, “the machines were running better, but it was too much work for all our staff and students to handle their own account management, backup, and support. I was hired right out of school to deal with that problem and let the faculty and students concentrate on their education and research, the real business of the department.”
That seems reasonable enough.But the initiative that followed, one of Dorinda and Jeff’s proudest accomplishments and a true collaboration between the two colleagues, was something that few would have anticipated.
Only 24 Hours
“The SPOC [Systems Programmer, Operator, and Consultant] program began,” Jeff laughs, “because there are only twenty-four hours in a day and TStaff refused to work all of them!” The program (members assist in the installation, maintenance, development, and documentation of local software, represent the off-hours technical support staff, and assist with administrative tasks) was a revolution. He adds: “As undergrads, they’re members of TStaff!”
Far more than just an increase in their numbers, the SPOC program was practically a living, breathing vision statement for TStaff, a declaration that they would achieve an unparalleled level of service by operating as a diverse team that thrived on interaction and refused to create boundaries among themselves. “TStaff had been together for a while,” explains Dorinda. “As the SPOC program grew and grew, we all knew a little bit about each other’s jobs. Nobody pushed anybody away when they tried to help; there was no politics.”
“We needed all the help we could get,” says Jeff. “And you have to realize that what the SPOC program is now, it was from the beginning.” Asked to pick out a few early SPOCs, numerous names come to him and Dorinda immediately: Steve Drucker, Mary Fernandez, Adam Buchsbaum, Mike Shapiro, Luther Kitahata. “But I’m uncomfortable singling anyone out.They were all great!We were working with very smart people, and we made it up as we went along.”
The years that followed brought change after change: Apollo machines to Sun machines, endless bugs, challenges with Windows in a networked environment, a decision in the early 2000’s to settle on Linux on MaxBuilt machines as the supported platform. First and foremost, TStaff responded to them with creativity. “TStaff finding its feet was about the transition from a research approach to a production approach,” says Dorinda. “We were given spaghetti, and by developing our own methods for stability, maintainability, and security, we built a system that was available 24 x 7 x 365.”
Jeff remembers the financial challenges of upgrades as being one of his biggest challenges. “At one point,” he explains, “new machines were $30,000 each. We had to negotiate so carefully and aggressively. One of our talking points was that we were giving the computer manufacturers advertising and exposure: students would leave Brown CS and rave about the hardware, tell the world that they loved Apollo, Sun, DEC and HP! There were endless meetings, discussions.”
John Savage recalls it extremely well. “We issued a request for proposals to all the major manufacturers,” he writes, “and everyone responded. After culling all but the most promising vendors, we devoted a morning to a community discussion in which individual faculty members made the case for the three finalists: Sun (Steve Reiss), DEC (Tom Doeppner), and NeXT (Andy van Dam). Sun made it to the top, but after the bake-off there was strong push-back from DEC, with whom we’d had a long relationship. As a result, we seriously considered splitting the purchase between Sun and DEC. Although Jeff thought his staff could tolerate two vendors, after a discussion we agreed that we should stick with one. That decision dramatically simplified the work of TStaff, because it had been managing nine different operating systems or versions thereof with one systems person, a horrible load.”
“In one of these many upgrades,” Jeff concludes, “we paid one million for machines that would have cost four times that amount off the shelf. I was incredibly proud of that.”
Having sushi with Steve Jobs (he was peddling the NeXT workstations) couldn’t have been too bad, either.
None of Jeff and Dorinda’s creativity and hard work has gone unrecognized by colleagues. Asked for their opinions, they responded with a flood of messages that can only partially be captured here.
Suzanne Alden describes Dorinda as "a real person" who "operates from the heart" and treats everyone with the same level of kindness, working with diligence and warmth. "Dorinda's always on hand," agrees Amy Greenwald. "She never hesitated, always helped willingly, whether it was creating a new account or debugging a permissions problem."
Amy says of Jeff, “I often went to him with out-of-the-box requests, and he was always eager to figure out a way to make things work, even when that meant going above and beyond what was usually asked of him. Thanks for always putting in that extra effort, Jeff!” Ugur Cetintemel envisions Jeff in perpetual motion: “We’ll miss seeing him around, walking the halls of the CIT, usually pushing a cart alongside Max. We’ve been very lucky to have such a dedicated colleague. He’s built deep relationships with many in the department, and his thoughtful professionalism set the culture and a very high bar for our TStaff.”
He feels similarly about Dorinda, joking that “we’ll miss her almost daily e-mails, warning us about viruses, spam and all the bad things in life. Dorinda has been a real professional, serving at the front lines with a very friendly and accommodating attitude.” Jane McIlmail sees Dorinda, like Jeff, as a relationship-builder: “She’s always read to stand up and speak out to make sure that our undergraduate students and student workers are getting their proper attention and respect in terms of service and support.”
If you’ve had data saved by a backup, thank Jeff and Dorinda. “From the earliest days,” writes John Savage, “Jeff saw the importance of maintaining backups for our file system. He led the effort for doing daily, weekly and monthly backups. Dorinda was in charge of the file system and was responsible for them. I consider the backup system to be the most important contribution made by TStaff in the early history of computing in the department.”
“It was definitely a selling point for me, when I applied for this job, that Jeff would be my counterpart on TStaff,” says Jane McIlmail. She sums things up for all of Brown CS: “I’ve just loved working with him, with both of them! They feel like family to me.”
On a late August afternoon, the sun is slowly going down in the windows of Jeff’s nearly empty office. So, what’s next for each of them? “Nothing too exciting,” he shrugs, but says he’s looking forward to more time with his family. “Seeing my kids and grandkids!” Dorinda has the future well planned out: a few years of gardening and walking the dog, then a move to a “little cowboy town” in Utah, where she’ll volunteer at the Best Friends Animal Society, one of the country’s leading animal shelters.
Looking into the future on behalf of TStaff, they see major transitions ahead. “The move toward self-management means dramatic change,” Dorinda says. “It’s a big step, a big challenge.” Jeff nods. “It’s almost the opposite of the early days, when our ultimate goal was providing the community with a stable environment. Now, user expectations are very different, and they have the capabilities to adjust and enhance their own desktop environments. TStaff will provide the infrastructure and services”
Asked about Dorinda’s best qualities, Jeff returns to the SPOC program. “She just excels at working with undergrads. It’s her favorite part of the job. She has people skills that match her technical skills, and she just loves it. You have to understand, normal people are content with things the way they are, but our users are the best of the best. They reach one plateau and look for the next.”
“And the SPOC program attracts the best and the brightest,” Dorinda smiles. “They just bubble up.”
“And we get to work with them!” says Jeff. “People see each other as peers here. Think of the UTA program, which was dedicated to augmenting the faculty. It’s about students giving their peers the best education they can get, instead of research being the only thing.”
“You’ve seen my SPOC wall?” Dorinda asks. (It’s a collection of hundreds of photos of SPOCs and a treasured drawing of a Starfleet science officer who spelled “SPOC” slightly differently.) There’s something unmistakable in her voice: “It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?”
The Brown CS family returns that love. Jeff and Dorinda, thank you for everything